Facing Coronavirus, “Food Pantries Are Already Feeling the Pinch”

A line of cars stretches around the Athens County Fairgrounds in Ohio on Thursday, Mar. 19, where the Southeast Ohio Foodbank offered a mobile food pantry using new coronavirus protocols.

A line of cars stretches around the Athens County Fairgrounds in Ohio on Thursday, Mar. 19, where the Southeast Ohio Foodbank offered a mobile food pantry using new coronavirus protocols.

March 20, 2020

Jezza Neumann is filming for an upcoming FRONTLINE special on the coronavirus pandemic, which is scheduled to air April 21 on most PBS stations at 9 p.m. EST/8 p.m. CST. Check local listings.

The line of cars containing people waiting for food from the Southeast Ohio Foodbank Thursday morning snaked all the way around the Athens County Fairgrounds.

Drivers and passengers kept their windows closed, holding their IDs and paperwork against the glass for volunteers who checked them in. Once the volunteer walked away, the driver would pop open their trunk and drive forward. The volunteer would load the food in the trunk, close it, and the car would drive away. This was a new procedure, intended to reduce direct contact as much as possible.

The organizers of the monthly mobile pantry told me they were expecting twice as many people as usual, as the exploding coronavirus crisis wreaked its havoc on the local economy.

A volunteer places food in a car trunk, as Neumann films.

Later that afternoon, Governor Mike DeWine mobilized the Ohio National Guard to assist food banks and pantries across the state. They’re facing a critical shortage — not of food — of manpower. Food banks rely on an army of volunteers to pack up warehoused food and transport it to the network of pantries.

With the threat of the coronavirus, volunteers are now dwindling. Some of those who volunteer came from nearby Ohio University. But the university has sent the students home for the semester. Other volunteers can no longer come in because they’re sick, at-risk, scared, or they need to be at home with an ill or elderly relative, or kids who are no longer in school.

A still of the mobile food pantry at the Athens County Fairgrounds, run by the Southeast Ohio Foodbank.
A view of the mobile food pantry at the Athens County Fairgrounds, run by the Southeast Ohio Foodbank.

I saw firsthand how that shortage was playing out at a pantry elsewhere in Athens County.

Margaret Sheskey, who runs the Nelsonville Food Cupboard, told me that their delivery had been cancelled that day, because there had been no one to pack it at the warehouse.

The hope is that the National Guard can fill that void, packing up food and even helping to distribute it with military vehicles if necessary. 

The Nelsonville Food Cupboard had always prided themselves on being a choice pantry, where people were able to come in and choose what food they needed. The virus has changed that. To minimize human contact, the pantry will now pack it for their clients instead.

Hunger was an acute problem in Athens County long before the coronavirus crisis hit. I had come here to film a documentary on inequality and poverty in America’s battleground states. But when the coronavirus story began to break, it became clear that this documentary would take a new focus: documenting the many ways the pandemic is burdening families who were already struggling with poverty in the first place.

This is an area that has been hit hard by successive waves of misfortune: the closure of coal mines, the opioid crisis, the Great Recession. There are some schools here that are eligible for 100 percent of students receiving free or reduced school meals. Add in coronavirus, and the need here now is massive.

But so, too, is the community response, which we are documenting. We filmed with a local school district, whose superintendent Rick Edwards decided that kids who count on free meals would get them even though school is closed. So they’ve got a whole fleet of school buses they’re using to deliver food. Some houses are so remote that even the buses can’t get there — so the teachers are planning to drive their own cars out to feed those kids.

The situation on the ground is constantly evolving. Other members of my team are in Pittsburgh, following a single mother who works as a caregiver and is facing impossible choices; and in Cincinnati filming how a shelter for homeless families is responding to the crisis.

We’re following extensive security and sanitation protocols to prevent getting or spreading the virus — cleaning our hands regularly, wiping down and sanitizing our cameras and mics, and following social distancing guidelines.

And we’re committed to telling this incredibly important story. For the millions of people who are already living on the edge, the effects of this crisis will be devastating, and likely last for years.

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