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How food banks in Oregon meet needs while practicing social distancing during pandemic

PMG PHOTO: RENDLEMAN, RAYMOND - Gladstone Food Pantry volunteer Sandie Kiehl, left, helps a family choose free groceries during Gladstones Adopt-a-Family event. Food pantries across the state are having to adjust as they try to limit the spread of the novel coronavirusIf you call Tualatin School House Pantry, the first thing you'll hear on their voicemail is a reassurance that they're still open.

As the global coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, food banks and pantries in Oregon are seeing an influx.

But staff say while hungry clients have risen since the pandemic began, donations are up as well.

School closures mandated by Gov. Kate Brown to contain the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, have left food-insecure students without meals they rely on. Current and impending layoffs will leave families strapped for cash and turning to their local resources for help.

Communities have stepped up — donating time, money and resources to their local food banks and pantries.

Tualatin School House Pantry has served Tualatin and surrounding areas such as Willsonville, West Linn and Durham for 16 years.

Tualatin School House Pantry has revised their protocol for interacting with clients during the pandemic. They will now only be providing pre-packaged food that has been assembled by volunteers ahead of time and distributing it for curbside pick-up, to minimize contact. Food is based on household size but can't be adjusted for personal preference.

Safety for volunteers is also a main concern.

"We have a lot of older volunteers, so a lot of them have taken a leave of absence," President Mike Shiffer said.

He said the community has offered more donations and they've had a slight increase in online donations.

But even getting donations at this time is tricky. "We have to basically quarantine donations right now," he said.

This is a precaution, since they don't know where the donated food has been.

Similarly, it's hard shopping for some food items the pantry would normally buy in bulk.

Shiffer said he used to be able to go to Costco and get 100 dozen eggs, for example. That's just not an option anymore. Shiffer said for the time being, they've found other ways to secure bulk food.

He worries future statewide restrictions might make things harder for pantries across the state. Capacity restrictions could lead to fewer volunteers or less ability to meet families' needs.

"We really appreciate the way the community has offered to help," Shiffer said.

Tualatin School House Pantry isn't alone. Hunger Fighters Oregon, a nonprofit food pantry serving Lake Oswego residents since 2017, received 220 online donations and 350 donations of food items and dozens of new volunteers in the initial weekend after school closures.

The food pantry was able to feed three times as many families then they would on a typical weekend, according to Ami Joshi, president of Hunger Fighters. Joshi said they were able to meet the needs of every family last weekend, even with the increase in clients.

Changes have had to be made to the operation since the pandemic began, Joshi said. Hunger Fighters extended its hours while schools are closed.

Initially a self-shop pantry, Last Saturday volunteers retreive food for the clients while the client stays in their car. Volunteers wear gloves and wipe down pens and clipboards.

Joshi said changes still require a lot of contact.

"It was difficult — within 24 hours — to transition to a stay-in-your-vehicle system," she said.

Now, Joshi said, the food pantry is moving to a system where volunteers have quick conversations with clients about household size and dietary restrictions, retrieves a pre-packaged box that fits that need, and drops the donation in the trunk of the client's car — all while the client stays in their car to minimize contact.

All donations supply the family with a week's worth of food.

The Oregon Food Bank, headquartered in Portland, serves all of Oregon and Southwest Washington with 17 regional food banks and more than 1,200 food assistance sites.

Though people tend to donate cyclically, ramping up during the holidays and slowing down during other months, CEO Susanna Morgan said the response during this virus has been astronomical.

Oregon Food Bank has some new best practices to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus, she said. Volunteer shifts are limited to 15 people. They are deep cleaning more regularly and encouraging volunteers over 60 to stay safe at home until conditions improve. They're also changing how they source food — focusing on food that does not require volunteer sorting and packing, and recommending fewer individual food or food drive donations at this time.

Morgan said that food, however, is still flowing.

The nonprofit West Linn Food Pantry has provided food insecure families with food boxes since 2007. In order to promote public health, they've had to make some changes in how they operate.

"As of this Thursday we are doing drive-up pickup only," Board Member Debby Meyers said. Clients won't even have to get out of their cars. Volunteers will wear gloves and distribute pre-packaged boxes of donations based on the size of the family.

We can't customize, unfortunately," Meyers added.

They do, however, ask preference for perishable items like dairy and meat.

The pantry is low on canned fruit and soups that have protein. Meyer's added that, of course, they are also low on toilet paper.

"Already we're just so grateful for the community's ongoing support but especially now," Meyers said.

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