By Brian Indre
With more and more people out of work and budgets growing tight, food banks in the Falls Church area are gearing up to provide, while following the proper social distancing and safety precautions in these uncertain times brought on by Covid-19.
Receiving lines now being set up outdoors to lessen the chance of the spread of the virus and new hurdles are part of the planning process for food pantries.
Good weather, car assessable lanes of cones and yellow caution tape, walkable lanes with distance markings to keep people from getting too close and making sure food items are not being handled too much are the new normal to keep these banks running.
Greg Loewer from Columbia Baptist Church, which has been running a food pantry for nearly 40 years, explains how their usual process has altered from handshakes and hugs to outdoor drive-thru or walk-up receiving lines in the last couple of weeks.
“Right now it’s time to take precautions for our volunteers and the families who need food,” Loewer said.
The church, with a location in the City of Falls Church, operates its food pantry out of another site in Bailey’s Crossroads.
A usual day at the Columbia food pantry service would need between 30 and 40 volunteers, “but that’s when we are all inside together with registration set up and able to meet and talk with those coming in,” he added.
“We have waived the usual registration to a simple check-in to keep track of who is coming,” Loewer said, noting that a skeleton crew of just around ten volunteers to handle the food, direct traffic and distribute rations are on site. Supplies such as gloves, hand sanitizer and ponchos will be outside for easy access.
In troubled times more people want to volunteer, but in this unique situation, the best way to contribute is to stay home and contribute to food pantries online. Loewer explains that for those who want to donate specifically to the food pantry, can do so easily on their website.
“It costs around $100k each year to run the food pantry, and a majority of the food we distribute is bought at a discount through the Capital Area Food Bank, which is delivered monthly,” Loewer said.
Islamic Relief USA (IRUSA), a nonprofit located in Alexandria, has been providing food and humanitarian assistance around the globe for 27 years. They supply grants to various social service entities that can administer programs like the food bank at Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center located just outside of Seven Corners. IRUSA oversees that grants are well utilized and that supplies such as hygiene kits, which were delivered to Dar Al- Hijrah, this past Monday afternoon in the wake of Covid-19.
“A lot of the donations have dried up because people can’t go to the store and bring stuff inside to donate, so we are trying to arrange donations in a safe manner,” said Saif Rahman, the director of public and government affairs at Dar Al-Hijrah.
Other struggles they face include their poultry partner not being able to deliver because the employees are considered non-essential at this time. And having to operate outdoors as a drive-thru and walk-thru service is the only way to keep people safe, Rahman explained.
With people not being able to attend the mosque, food donations are down, but people can still call and arrange to drop off food, and are encouraged to do so.
“In times like this, people in need are more vulnerable, so we prioritized trying to ration resources to make sure that we stay operational,” said Rahman.
Northern Virginia Family Service offers food assistance and other social services, and has taken precautions seriously in order to maintain support for those that depend on them.
During this time they will be bypassing all documentation requirements for eligibility, and anyone is invited to make an appointment, with the goal to open more appointment slots for new clients as soon as possible, said David Billotti, the group’s director of marketing and communication.
Billotti mentioned that they have managed to re-deploy some staff, but that the biggest challenge is getting food donations. Trucks are being sent out to pick up food but they are coming back with limited supplies. He would like people to visit the website to understand what is needed and how to get it to them.
Other organizations like Northern Virginia’s Homestretch and Britepaths, who offer a wide range of social services, continue to operate but have had to cut back considerably on volunteers and permitting staff to telecommute.
“The challenges are manifold,” said Christopher Fay, executive director at Homestretch.
Fay mentions how personal interaction with the homeless families they serve has had to be modified to keep everyone safe. They worry about possible home evictions and the overall economic strain affecting philanthropy; both hanging in the balance depending on how long this goes on.
Britepaths Executive Director Lisa Whetzel says that they had to restructure food distribution.
For the time being, they are no longer accepting food donations or allowing clients to come to the facility to pick up food. She says that monetary donations are appreciated and used to purchase food gift cards in bulk, which are then mailed to clients.