Just Food, county food pantries see spike in demand amid pandemic; donations needed

photo by: Kim Callahan

Vehicles back up on East 11th Street as clients wait to pick up food shortly after 12:30 p.m. Friday, April 3, 2020, at the Just Food pantry.

Just Food has experienced a twofold increase in demand in the past three weeks as newly unemployed Lawrence and Douglas County residents seek the help of the food pantry for the first time, the agency’s leader said.

Just Food executive director Elizabeth Keever said the Lawrence food bank has distributed more than 40,000 pounds of food in the past three weeks. That’s double the amount Just Food normally would distribute in that time span, she said, and it’s mostly because the COVID-19 pandemic has driven a lot of new traffic from people who didn’t use the food bank regularly in the past.

“One of the complications of this is that 59% of our clients are people who never used our service before,” Keever said.

It’s not just the level of demand that’s changed at Just Food. The food bank has also changed its practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Since March 18, Just Food has provided curbside pickup of prepackaged boxes of groceries to clients visiting its facility at 1000 E. 11th St. In the past, clients were able to select items directly from the pantry’s shelves.

The curbside service is available from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Friday. In addition, Just Food offers home deliveries to Douglas County residents without transportation, and its Cruising Cupboard mobile pantry visits Baldwin City and Lecompton once a month.

“In total, we have served 2,250 households in the last three weeks,” Keever said. “That’s 4,957 people.”

Clients of the pantry must be registered with Just Food, said Ryan Bowersox, Just Food marketing and outreach director. Applications can be found online at justfoodks.org and can also be picked up at the pantry, she said. The registration allows Just Food to take family size, special dietary requirements and other needs into account when packing boxes for clients. A family of four could receive a two-box, two-week supply of food, Bowersox said.

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In normal times, Just Food has meat, produce and dairy products available for clients, but the pandemic has changed the pantry’s stock, as well.

The food bank obtains much of its fresh stock through agreements with Lawrence grocery stores, Keever said. The meat, produce and other perishable foods are items that federal regulations allow food pantries to distribute after grocery stores are required to remove them from their shelves, Keever said.

But with the run on grocery stores in recent weeks, that supply of fresh food has dried up, except for the items Just Food now buys off the shelf, she said.

Nonperishable canned and boxed goods are more reliably available, and Bowersox said the food bank’s offerings change frequently depending on what it can get from its suppliers.

“There’s really no set thing that goes into the boxes,” she said. “What we can provide changes every hour with availability.”

Because the pandemic is affecting what grocery stores are able to provide, donations are more critical than ever if Just Food wants to keep operating at full capacity, Keever said.

“Douglas County does provide us $25,000 annually, and the city of Lawrence $5,000,” she said. “That’s less than 5% of our total budget. We need to maintain fundraising throughout all this. This is going to last a long time. We need continued donations to maintain this at the current level.”

Just Food will accept food donations, but Keever said cash is better because the agency buys food at a discounted wholesale rate. Also, Just Food staff and volunteers can more easily sort and store wholesale purchases delivered on pallets than individual donated items, she said. That greater efficiency also reduces the number of hands touching food items — and the chance of spreading the virus.

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Just Food isn’t the only food pantry to change its procedures because of the pandemic. In Baldwin City, the community food pantry has started issuing vouchers that can be redeemed at the Baldwin City Market grocery store, said Susan Butell, a longtime volunteer at the pantry.

Like Just Food, the Baldwin City pantry used to let clients select their own food from the pantry, Butell said. When the pandemic started, the pantry experimented with curbside delivery for two weeks before adopting the voucher system.

“The logistics of us handling all that food coming from wherever in a confined space was not ideal,” Butell said.

In the first week of the voucher system, the vouchers were good for $20 worth of food at the market, although that amount might change in the future, said Laura Dickinson, another longtime volunteer. They can be used to buy food and household items, but they can’t be used to purchase alcoholic beverages. Butell said the food pantry gave out 34 vouchers Saturday, which was about normal traffic for the pantry.

The Eudora Community Pantry at St. Paul United Church of Christ, 738 Church St., switched three weeks ago from individual pantry shopping to curbside boxed food, said Sue Neustifter, the pantry’s coordinator. During a phone call Friday, Neustifter said she didn’t have the pantry’s books at home, but that demand has increased in recent weeks. The pantry is well stocked with nonperishables, but meat, dairy and produce may be unavailable with the current rush on stores, she said.

Donations are needed to maintain the pantry’s stockpile, Neustifter said.

“The community has been great to us,” she said. “All the other churches collect food, too. But someday we might have to close if we run out of food.”

How to donate

Just Food: Visit the pantry at 1000 E. 11th St., call 785-856-7030 or go to paypal.me/justfoodks.

Baldwin City food pantry: Visit baldwinfirst.org or mail donations to Baldwin First United Methodist Church, 704 Eighth Street, P.O. Box 25, Baldwin City, KS 66006

Eudora food pantry: Visit St. Paul United Church of Christ, 738 Church St., or call 785-865-9880.

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