A few minutes before the FISH Food Pantry opens under a gray sky, three cars have lined up waiting for boxes of food.
Inside the building on the grounds of St. Bernard Catholic Church on Friday afternoon, manager Carol Spencer has been at work for hours loading up the boxes, which are harder to come by since clients had to stop using their own containers to limit the spread of COVID-19.
When it’s time to start handing out the food, Spencer reaches into a freezer for a package of chicken breasts, handing it to a volunteer who sends it out the door as two other workers rush to pack more food.
The scene is playing out across the nation as more and more people left without a job or taking home smaller paychecks due to the coronavirus pandemic turn to food pantries for help feeding their families.
Due to the effects of the pandemic, more than 54 million people may experience food insecurity this year, including a potential 18 million children, according to Feeding America, a nonprofit hunger relief organization. That’s on top of the 35 million people in the U.S. who struggled with hunger in 2019, based on federal statistics.
From March through June, Feeding America said food pantries distributed nearly 2 billion meals nationwide.
The initial rush of clients at FISH slowed after stimulus checks were sent out in April, but demand has since gone back up for food. The pantry, which is open four days a week, served 773 clients in September.
While the community has generously donated food throughout the year, the pantry lost seven workers who couldn’t travel because of the virus.
“We don’t have that many [volunteers] but they’re very loyal,” Spencer said.
For client Tammie Ricketts, the pandemic hasn’t been the only hardship this year. Her husband recently died, and she started visiting the pantry to cut down on grocery bills.
“It’s been very tight,” Ricketts said as she waited in the car with a neighbor.
Pantries that allowed clients to select their own food switched to a drive-thru format this spring because of social distancing guidelines. At Grace & Mercy Ministries, volunteers loaded boxes of food into vehicles that pulled up to the side of the church.
The pantry, which distributes food twice a week, has served up to 1,000 families since the beginning of the year, including 150-250 new families.
“We’re still seeing an increase of new people I’ve never seen before,” said Carla Neese, who’s volunteered with the pantry for 11 years.
“So the need’s still there,” fellow volunteer Mecca Menges added.
In Fountain County, among the resources for food assistance is Veedersburg Church of God, which served 19 families this week, said the Rev. Virgil Moss, the church’s pastor.
Though the county is dealing with a surge of COVID-19 cases, the pantry has helped the same number of families as it did before the pandemic hit. The church expects more clients next month as the holidays near.
“It’s basically up and down. Some months we have more, some months we have less,” Moss said.
Families are also showing up to Food Finders Food Bank’s mobile pantry, which has stopped at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds and New Market Elementary School. The truck provides enough food to serve 140 families, according to the organization.