Modifying food pantry operations to cope with the COVID pandemic by Biff Staples

Once the pandemic started with masks and separation by 6 feet, we made a board decision to change our operation from a choice food pantry to drive-thru operation. Key to this decision to change was to abide by the new safety guidelines provide by the Government and the Harry Chapin Food Bank. Our issue was if we found any volunteers that tested positive for COVID we might be forced to shut down the pantry.

I have been volunteering at the SW Fort Myers Food Pantry since Labor Day, 2014. Biff Staples has been the driving force for the pantry. Faced with the looming pandemic, I opted out for a year. Biff used his managerial and logistical skills to redesign the pantry. Biff and I have become close friends over the years as we discuss life and sports. I have nothing but admiration for his leadership, companionship, and friendship. Here is his brief description of how he transformed the pantry as it faced an existential threat. He also comments on my posts earlier this month. RLS.

We notified our coalition members and partners of our decision to change the operation as well as posting the changes. We had been a choice walk-thru pantry since beginning of our pantry in 2008. There were already drive-thru operations that we were able to benchmark. There was room in the parking lot to implement the drive-thru portion. We needed to make sure we were providing our clients with the best and varied diet of meat, proteins, breads, fresh vegetables and fruit, and special foods to cater to families. This effort required pre-picking and bagging ready for clients for both morning and evening shifts.

We reorganized the pantry to accommodate the changes which included rearranging the flow of food and storage area.  We now picked the orders and staged them for the drive-thru. During the pandemic there were shortages of food from Harry Chapin so we began to purchase from the local supermarkets to supplement what Harry Chapin could not provide.  This required more emphasis on fundraising to meet the added costs.

When Biff refers to Harry Chapin, he is referring to the Food Bank we work with. Harry Chapin was a famous singer and songwriter who had a passion for feeding the hungry. Before his tragic death he established food banks on Long Island and in Fort Myers, Florida. Truth is that Chapin was one of my favorite singers long before I knew about his charity work. RLS

Over time we refined the drive-thru process by redesigning the car flow with cones to accommodate more clients. We were now outside more of the time and added two large peaked tents that gave us over 60 feet of covered space for registration and the drive-thru.

two vehicles in the tented area for registration and loading
Drive-thru after addition of two large tents for registration and loading

During the transition we continued to update our coalition members and partners as well as asking our clients through a poll what they liked and didn’t like. Results of the poll were overwhelmingly positive to the change going to the drive-thru from the choice method.  Clients liked the speed, process, and staying in their cars.  Volunteers liked the new changes with some exceptions. One thing volunteers regret is less interaction with clients.  We made a board decision to keep the drive-thru operation as a permanent process. This is due to the efficiency we gained. We now are now able to double the number of clients served. Also, the acceptance of our clients and coalition members and partners reinforced that decision. 

small SUV loaded under the tent
Loading a vehicle as the sun sets over Fort Myers

We continued with masks for both clients and volunteers until we felt it was safe to make masks optional. We received positive feedback from Harry Chapin, our clients, coalition members, and partners as well as visitors and the local press/media. We continue to learn from experience and strive for continued process improvement.

My thoughts  on Big Hunger from Andrew Fisher and your very good counterpoints:

Income-inequality. There is and always will be the gap between the rich and poor. I don’t like it. In fact I feel guilty when I play golf, go out to dinner, spend money on frivolous items having spent time working with the poor and hungry. That is why I volunteer to help them. Our food pantry policy is to leave politics at the door. Our goal is simply to feed the hungry and also show them empathy and kindness.

Who are the clients? They come for many different reasons.  Many don’t come regularly only as a gap to supplement their own food purchases. Some have mental issues and dependencies that makes it hard to work. Some have health issues which make working difficult and need food. Many are the working poor even with an increased minimum wage can’t make ends meet when they pay up to 50% of wages toward housing. Add to that transportation, child care, and health-care costs. That doesn’t leave much for food. There are elderly clients on fixed incomes and the undocumented with nowhere to turn. 

Big Food/Government. I grew up in the Detroit area when welfare was first started in the 60’s. We are now in the 4th and 5th generation of welfare dependency with no end in sight. At least Big Food is donating their leftovers and dated food to food pantries and food distribution centers. Unfortunately, up to 40% is wasted due to many government standards and compliances. USDA is one of the government suppliers to food distribution centers. The quality of that food can be dated and in terrible shape.

Volunteers. As I said, we require that politics be left at the door of the pantry. Our volunteers come from many backgrounds and faith beliefs.  They are far left and far right and in the middle. One thing in common is their desire to help people in need. They are empathetic and caring when they work with our clients. They know many clients don’t want to be in line for food, and we help them through difficult times. Many food pantries not only give food out but guide the clients through health benefits, where to get clothing, job searches, and access to government agencies. And, yes, we give out some candy but the smiles it gives the kids and the volunteers are priceless.

Next Week: Food Routes and quirks in food supply chains

man putting groceries into the back of a car at the food pantry
Biff loading a car before the recent addition of tents

Biff Staples is the President of the South Fort Myers Food Pantry Coalition Inc. The pantry’s mission is to feed the needy of south Fort Myers. He extends his appreciation to the many volunteers and board members over the years that have made the pantry a success.

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