A recent $100,000 grant given to the Jane B. Gearhart Full Circle Food Pantry and the Razorback Food Recovery Program will allow volunteers and organizers to expand food assistance services for UA community members.
Food pantry staff and volunteers have served an increased number of monthly clients since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and they have had to adapt to many pandemic-related restrictions.
Sage McCoy, a higher education institution program coordinator in the Center for Community Engagement, said Volunteer Action Center board members applied for the grant in December 2020 and received it in January 2021. Part of the grant will be used to hire AmeriCorps Volunteers in Service to America members to work in the pantry and the food recovery program. AmeriCorps members in the VISTA program work in nonprofit organizations and public agencies to build capacity.
“Folks serve one year at a nonprofit or at a different type of agency to increase capacity,” McCoy said. “They spend one year building (the) foundation (and) increasing capacity to serve. “We will bring on four who will help with the food pantry and food recovery in various ways.”
Food pantry organizers will use grant money to buy a refrigerator truck to provide storage and transportation of food for the pantry and the RFR program, McCoy said. They are also planning to expand their services for recipients of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps.
“We want to expand our SNAP services, maybe set up some clinics where we can sit down and help people apply, or at least increase the education around it,” McCoy said. “We want to get more express stops and more mini pantries.”
As unemployment rates have risen because of the COVID-19 pandemic, food pantry workers served almost double their average number of monthly clients last summer, Food Drives Coordinator Briana Roden said.
“On average, pre-COVID, (we were) helping about 750 household members a month,” Roden said. "Over the summer we were feeding on average...between 1300 to 1400 people.”
Donations from various organizations helped support the increase in demand over the summer, Roden said. However, fall food drives that normally garner large numbers of donations were less successful than usual last semester.
“It’s been very two ends of the spectrum because certain groups have been super generous and donate,” Roden said. “However, our homecoming drive, (which is) our biggest drive of the year, went down significantly this year. Last year we got 23,000 items from that one drive and this year we got about 7,500.”
Pandemic-related restrictions have forced the food recovery program to alter the ways they recover and serve food, Liam Alderson, Razorback Food Recovery team chair, said in an email. “One of the biggest adaptations we had to make was moving our recovery volunteers out of the kitchens where they usually recover food, to minimize the number of people grouped together, as well as (protect) our Chartwells kitchen staff,” Alderson said.
The RFR also launched a repackaging program in March 2020, however, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers did not fully establish the program until the 20-21 school year, Alderson said. Repackaging program volunteers take large portions of food recovered and divide them up into meals for families around the community.
“Our repackaging program takes pans from our daily recovery and works with St. Paul's Church to create individual, microwaveable meals that include multiple food groups — one protein, one vegetable, one starch usually,” Alderson said.
McCoy is proud of how student volunteers and leaders have stepped up to meet the growing needs of the two student-run programs during the pandemic, she said. She is excited to see how the grant will allow the programs to grow further.
“The undergraduate students have really stepped up, and they did not sign up to run these programs in a pandemic,” McCoy said.”They’ve stepped up and we’ve been able to keep our programs running. The grant is just going to help us grow even further and I’m just really excited about where things are planned. And in a year or two, I think we got some pretty big things on the plate.”