Food Banks Keep Busy – Lowell Sun

FOOD BANKS KEEP BUSY

By Jon Winkler
jwinkler@ nashobavalleyvoice. com
GROTON » It’s 9 a. m. on a cold Tuesday morning and Bob Marley is playing from a speaker inside the Groton- Dunstable Regional Middle School South. The legendary singer’s messages of peace and hope for the future are exactly the motivation the staff of the school district need while volunteering to pack food and toiletries for struggling local residents.
“ I feel like we’re supporting our families going through food shortages,” Assistant Superintendent Laura Chesson said last week. “ Doing this makes people feel like they’re not alone and helping out is giving us a sense of purpose.”
The coronavirus has kept a chokehold on many aspects of daily life in Massachu-setts, especially the economy and education. Family breadwinners have been forced to file for unemployment due to the virus crippling their jobs, while their children can’t go to school due to fear of infection, worrying parents. So who is putting food on the table?

Lowell Regional Transit Authority General Manager George Anastas, left, hands a box of food to Merrimack Valley Regional Food Bank Warehouse Assistant Dennis MacDonald on Friday. The LRTA hosted a ‘Fill the Bus’ food drive, with employees collecting nonperishable food donations for the food bank.
NICOLE DEFEUDIS / LOWELL SUN

That job has fallen to local food banks. Some have long been established as a resource for those struggling, like the Loaves & Fishes food pantry out of Devens. Others, like the Groton-Dunstable school bank, have been set up recently. In fact, it’s the second food resource in the Groton- Dunstable area established out of a partnership between the school district and the Groton Center. The first was opened for senior citizens at the Groton Center on April 7, the same day the school food bank was opened.
Katie Novak, another assistant superintendent at Groton- Dunstable, said the partnership came after Loaves & Fishes temporarily closed its doors on April 3 due to logistical reasons. Novak said last week the school was already providing lunches to low- income families in the district who relied on the schools to provide meals for their children daily.
“At first we were trying to provide extra tissues and sanitizer with the lunches,” she explained. “ Then, because Loaves & Fishes temporarily closed, I wrote to them asking if they had anything on their shelves to donate to us. I then sent out an email to our district saying we’re helping.”
With the help of the Groton Center, the Groton Neighborhood Food Project, the Community Children’s Fund and the Commissioners of Trust Funds, school district staffers have spent every Tuesday for the past three weeks packing grocery bags with toiletries and perishable and nonperishable foods for pickup from 10 a. m. to 2 p. m. School staffers working on a volunteer basis sport masks and gloves as they pack bread, pasta, paper towels, canned soup and other items to bring them out to those in need who pull up to the school for pick- up. On top of those necessities, Novak said the volunteers pack other items if they can spared to brighten the days of children. These include extra juice boxes, flowers and even sidewalk chalk to keep kids entertained at home.
“ People are grateful for the food, but also the small items that spark joy,” she said. “ We actively reach out to families, we’ll call them or go out to their house to check on them. We’ll provide these groceries for as long as we can.”

The positive attitude is kept up throughout the state, but other pantries have recognized the increased demand for food assistance. Taryn Gillis, a member of the operators committee of the Billerica Community Pantry, said last week that her group has had to change its distribution method over the past month to address the “enormous increase” in clients. Gillis said they usually provide food donations to about 185 families on the last Monday of each month from 2 to 5 p. m. Gillis said that at the pantry’s last distribution day on March 30, 375 families received food donations.
“ Usually we have people come and go as they please,” she added. “ But with this increase in need, they contact us and RSVP because we have to make sure we know how much food we can serve.”

A common source of food many pantries and programs turn to for restocking is the Merrimack Valley Food Bank in Lowell.
Amy Pessia, the bank’s executive director, described the past four weeks as “extraordinary” given the number of pantries that have requested help restocking their food supplies. Currently, the food bank provides for 140 feeding programs and supplementary food to about 1,200 students in the state. The food bank hit a few snares recently, with three planned food drives set to take place in April and May canceled due to COVID- 19 concerns.
Pessia said the food bank has been relying on food donations received last winter and purchases made last fall to provide to other food services, though the bank has already gone through about 80% of that supply. She said the bank has been “ fortunate enough” to receive financial donations from corporate sponsors and individual donors so it can place orders for more food. Merrimack Valley also received a food donation of over 2,400 pounds from the Lowell Regional Transit Authority on April 24.
“ That really brought management and labor together to be an all- around morale booster,” Pessia said.
Lynnette Valentine, envoy for the Salvation Army food bank in Fitchburg, said the bank was “ already a revolving door” before cases of the virus were reported but said she did notice that new clients who are first-time visitors to the food bank have shown up in the last few weeks. She added that, as of last weekend, the Salvation Army has served over one million meals statewide. As for the Fitchburg bank, Valentine said its client numbers have increased 45% since mid- March, with the real brunt of the increase happening around March 29.
“ It happened like, ‘ BAM!,’ we knew it was going to happen around then,” she added. “ Every 35 minutes, the new normal was changing so we stayed on top of things.”
Valentine said the local food bank, open Monday through Friday from 9 to 11 a. m., has adjusted its pick- up procedure from being made by appointment to simply welcoming anyone who pulls up looking for help. The bank prepares boxes containing enough food for seven days and will continue to do so no matter how ambiguous the timeline of the coronavirus may be.
“ We’re gonna still be here and still be serving,” she said. “Just like any public health emergency, we’re here from the beginning until things are restored.”

LRTA employees unload donations from their food drive. Bus driver Lisa Boisvert, in the rear bus door, passed boxes of food to Dispatcher Valerie Banson, front center, Operations Manager Dawn Marvin, rear center, and General Manager George Anastas, front left.
NICOLE DEFEUDIS / LOWELL SUN

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