Fighting the spread of COVID-19 has brought big changes to the way one does things, from shopping to community service. The volunteers preparing meals for the Wednesday night Open Hearts Dinners have found the past couple months anything but business as usual. To accommodate public health and executive orders, the weekly sit-down community meals moved to a take-away model.
That meant re-thinking the way we do things, Denice Peckins said. Dinner prep still happens on Tuesdays, but more people are available earlier in the day to help out. This allows Peckins to divide the preparation jobs so as to keep the number of volunteers working at any one time to a minimum. Early in the day, a crew of four cuts up the fruit and packs it into take-out cups. Later, another group works on the entrée. Everyone wears a mask, apron, and gloves, she noted.
In the past, the Wednesday evening dinners opened with some social time and appetizers. Preparing meals for take-out means choosing simple menus, Peckins said. “We can’t do appetizers, and desserts are mostly cookies because they can be bagged and are easier to hand out.” It has also meant finding simple, yet tasty meals that appeal to families.
“That means comfort food,” Peckins said. “We’ve served baked spaghetti, pulled pork, chicken, and lasagna.” Menu planning also means being flexible and taking advantage of the meats, fruits, and vegetables they are able to obtain through a distributor.
The last meal served in the dining room of McKendree Methodist Church was March 11, and like most Open Hearts dinners, they served about 170 meals. Shifting to take-away meals meant not only changing the menu – there are fewer choices – but figuring out the best way to pack and distribute the food. Their solution: have cars enter one driveway and pick up a number for how many meals they need, then drive around the church to the other side where someone puts those meals in the trunk of the car.
With increased unemployment, there has been a corresponding increase in need for meals. “We are now serving around 500 meals each Wednesday,” Peckins said, “At this rate, we’re going to need more ovens.”
Just a couple blocks away, the Bread of Life Food Pantry is noticing a similar increase in need. Pat Walp, director of the food pantry, described some of the changes they have made to keep volunteers safe while helping the community. Instead of walking through the food pantry filling a bag, people now line up in their cars along Stowell Avenue, forming a double line in front of the Coal Barn for curbside pick-up.
Volunteers show up on Monday and Tuesday to pack non-perishable foods into boxes. “We generally know our regulars, and put together a bunch of different-sized boxes,” Walp said. They pack for families of two to four, five to six, and seven or more. In addition, Walp makes a list of what perishables will be available so they can add the grains and meat right before pick-up.
On Wednesday morning, Walp drives a van to Ithaca to load up with donations of baked goods and fresh fruits and vegetables. By the time the cars line up, all that is left to add are frozen items. Wearing a mask, Walp walks from car to car, asking whether families need meat and milk. Meanwhile, volunteers wheel out carts loaded with food boxes, add last-minute items, while another loads boxes into the cars.
“Our first week was chaotic,” Walp said. “We were like ants at a picnic.” Now the distribution crew has got it down to a well-oiled machine. “But we do miss the socialization,” Walp said. “When people walked through the pantry, we would share ideas for how to use unfamiliar foods, like mangoes.” She hopes to have hand-outs with recipes in the future.
The shortages people notice in grocery stores has also affected the food pantry. “Pasta is now limited to macaroni and spaghetti,” Walp said, “and cold cereal is hard to find.” On the other hand, a local farmer donated a large load of cabbage and they have toilet paper.
In addition to rising needs, both the food pantry and Open Hearts Dinner have noticed an increase in donations. Some people, even those who have moved away from the community, donated significant chunks of their COVID-stimulus checks, and others donated food items. Tammy Perry, who runs the Momma’s Munchies food truck (where Jim’s BBQ used to be) marshalled the energy of her motorcycle club to collect food.
“We call ourselves the ‘Merciful Misfitz,’” she said, explaining that all the members have been single parents. “Not only do we love to ride, but we love to do good for our communities.” They recently delivered a pick-up truck load of donated items to the food pantry, and Perry plans to hold benefit hot-dog lunches now and then to raise money for the pantry. Perry would also like to see Blessing Cupboards in town, places where people can donate non-perishable food items or take what they need. Maybe this will help fill in some gaps as people struggle to get by from one Wednesday to the next.