Virus ramps up challenge for Malheur County food pantries

Bill Ussing, a volunteer at the Vale Food Pantry, sprays down shopping carts after each use as Connie Ussing, the pantry’s manager, disinfects her gloves. Area pantries are adjusting to new rules put in place to provent the spread of COVID-19 among clients and volunteers. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

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VALE – A drive-through in Nyssa, a double barrier in Vale, closures in Ontario – food pantries in Malheur County are adapting to keep clients and volunteers safe from COVID-19 all while facing shortages and increased traffic.

In Ontario, Next Chapter Food Pantry cut its hours to once a week at the pantry adjacent to St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. A separate location normally operating on Mondays at First Christian Church was closed altogether for now.

Adding to the stressors, pantries are being directed to avoid taking donations unless they are store-bought items, and to isolate donated items for two weeks in an effort to mitigate chances of infection. 

Pantries are also finding it harder to stock their shelves with fresh produce and meat as partners struggle to meet demand.

Yet the number of clients continues to grow.

The Nyssa Food Pantry served 60 families last week. The week before that averaged about 70. Kathy Oliver, Nyssa Food Pantry manager, said a normal rate for the site is between 40 and 50 families a week.

“When I say families that doesn’t mean people,” said Oliver, who’s managed the site for 14 years. “There could be one person in that family or 10 people in that family.”

She and her volunteers are now running a drive-through service. They pack boxes ahead of time and are vigilant about disinfecting hands and practicing social distancing.

The influx of food that pantries usually receive has seen a slowdown. Oliver is receiving fewer items through Fresh Alliance, a program the Oregon Food Bank runs to recover grocery items that may go unsold at partnering supermarkets. She’s low on produce, baking items, meat and eggs.

“This is all because of the coronavirus,” Oliver said. “We didn’t have any of these problems before. Two to three weeks ago everything was normal and it changed in one day for us.”

In Vale, a barrier of milk crates is now set up in front of the pantry so that volunteers and clients can keep their distance. Clients used to cram into the small site tucked next to Vale City Hall and shop their way through the pantry as if at a regular supermarket, selecting items from the shelf.

But now they fill out a form and cross out any items they don’t want due to allergies or food restrictions. Volunteers then go inside, fill a box and cart it to people’s cars. The carts are disinfected after each use.

Connie Ussing, Vale Food Pantry manager, said the site is attempting to make deliveries for elderly or disabled clients who call ahead and can’t make it to the site.

The pantry has seen plenty of new faces, Ussing said. While the numbers have gone up, Ussing said she’s unsure about her clients’ situations and whether they’ve been laid off recently.

“We don’t have as many conversations as we used to so we’re not getting a lot of feedback,” Ussing said. 

Much like regular shoppers, food pantries are struggling to find disinfecting wipes and other items at stores.

Those items come out of each individual pantry’s budget. Oliver said she was lucky she purchased some items ahead of time since they’re now hard to find. She’s buying local as much as she can.

“It means we’re paying more money, but it’s important to stay local because everybody is taking a hit,” Oliver said.

Ussing has been sewing face masks for her volunteers to use. She’s been working with fewer volunteers since some of her usual corps may be more vulnerable to the disease.

The new system in place and the shortage of helpers means service is slower.

“This is what it’s going to take for us to stay open, most of our volunteers are vulnerable individuals so we have to be extra careful,” Ussing said.

Despite the setbacks, Oliver said there’s been a silver lining.

“I have volunteers who have come forward that weren’t regulars,” Oliver said. “I’ve had teenagers that haven’t been in school and they’ve been coming and volunteering.”

She’s been impressed by the way the community has stepped up to help. She usually has about half a dozen volunteers on a shift. The number has more than doubled.

Quick’s Foto Designs, a photography studio in Nyssa, kicked off a campaign to raise funds for the pantry.

The fundraiser is called Front Porch Portraits. Local photographers Mary Louise and Robert Quick will take portraits of Nyssa families. Rather than payment, the Quicks are encouraging participants to make a donation to the pantry.

Have a news tip? Yadira Lopez: [email protected]

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