Food Shelf Adaptations and Innovations in a Pandemic
A visit to a food shelf used to look just like a visit to a grocery store. Visitors came and went during open hours, picking and choosing the fresh and shelf-stable items that best met their family’s needs, diet and tastes. But beginning in March, as with everywhere else, our nearly 1,000 food shelves, pantries and meal program partners shuttered to keep staff, volunteers and visitors safe from the uncertainty of the COVID-19 virus. Yet with immediate economic impacts and hunger surging to record levels, these critical community agencies knew they had to reopen, and soon.
“Our board met immediately to determine how we could stay open as an essential business while best supporting our teams and our visitors,” explained Greta Lintelman, board member at Heaven’s Table in rural Fairmont, who pre-pandemic served 300-325 families per month.
“At the same time, we didn’t want to give out pre-boxed food. It just didn’t make sense for us to provide product to folks that they couldn’t use or wouldn’t eat. We knew we needed to find a new path forward.”
A new operational path forward would also require a new volunteer workforce. As is the case in most rural areas, reliable food shelf volunteers are older and retired, choosing, understandably, to shelter in place rather than risking exposure at food shelves that would be busier as layoffs set in and more family members, including distance-learning students, were eating at home.
“While many of our usual volunteers needed to stay home, we were fortunate enough to find folks who were laid off or closed to help us out. So, we made a list of our inventory and began a menu-style ordering system while our clients safely waited in their cars.”
The transition to curbside ordering
Here's how it has worked at Heaven’s Table:
- Clients drives up and a number and order form are placed on their windshield
- Each family completes the order form, picking and choosing what they like
- Forms are collected by volunteers and fulfilled inside the food shelf by volunteers stationed at safely distanced categorical areas, like the aisles of a grocery store
- The order comes together at the last scale area where it’s weighed, transferred onto a cart and rolled outside to be loaded into the client’s car
For senior clients and those without reliable transportation, Prairie Lakes Transit has been making free delivery possible with support from the Minnesota Department of Transportation. While it took a while for staff, volunteers and clients to get used to distancing and masks and gloves, the adapted operation has kept 400 families fed each month since March.
Adaptations and innovations at food shelves across the state
The essential work of food shelves across the state has continued and evolved despite what the pandemic and related impacts bring.
At the Kandiyohi County Food Shelf in Willmar, call-ahead ordering was implemented to bring back choice and convenience. One frequent visitor, a dad with three kids, calls in his order and swings by for quick pick-up while on his lunch break.
At ECHO Food Shelf in Mankato, online ordering is available in both English and Spanish and updated daily with what’s available. Volunteers will receive, fulfill, and have an order ready for pick-up in around 40 minutes.
Preparing for a winter like none other
These are just a few examples of ways food shelves have adapted since the pandemic changed everyday life. But with Minnesota’s long, dark and cold winter on our doorstep, Greta and food shelf leaders like her are again looking to adapt.
“We’re working toward a couple of options. We are going to mimic Mankato and provide online ordering to clients using the same operation we’ve worked out since March. For those without a smartphone or computer, we’ll offer tablets or paper order forms. More than anything, come winter, we want to retain choice by reducing wait time. We hate to see clients burning up gas while waiting in their cars.”
Indeed, it’s time to adopt these new food distribution and client service models as normal. As much as we wish it weren’t the case, we know the impacts of the pandemic will be with us long after the virus is eventually contained. In addition to keeping people fed through response and recovery, there must be choice and control over their experience and the food they receive, all while keeping teams and clients safe.
Our Agency Relations team at Second Harvest Heartland has been adapting right along with our partners to help ease pressures where we can:
- We made $400,000 in grants available to help partners adjust to their local needs, be that in buying additional cold storage or technology to make remote ordering possible.
- As our expenses rise to meet surging demand and increased distribution, we’re not passing any additional costs along to our partners.
- We’re working with partners to develop crisis response and preparedness plans, and helping them troubleshoot expected winter challenges, like securing contracts to plow parking lots for food distributions.