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Charlotte Food Programs Had To Adjust To COVID-19 And Are Still Seeing High Demand

As cars pulled up one by one on a recent day, Melody Reedy explained how things work at the Hope Street drive-thru food pantry at Hope Church near Mallard Creek High School in north Charlotte.

About a dozen volunteers are packing bags and boxes with basic food items, toiletries, and baked goods, then loading them into people’s trunks or back seats. The pantry is open Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. and has been serving about 450 people a month. Even as the economy picks up again, the pantry is as needed now as it was a year ago, Reedy said.

"Still a need, still a need," Reedy said. "That's the thing, if you look at the financial hardship over that long of a period … you don't dig a hole overnight. That's a hole that has taken over a year financially for them (clients) to get into."

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Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina
Kay Carter

Over the past year, food banks and pantries have seen record demand. Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina delivers purchased and donated food to 800 agencies in 24 counties in North Carolina and South Carolina. CEO Kay Carter says before the pandemic, they supplied about 60 million pounds of food. That rose by 10 million pounds in the year that ended last June 30, and she expects final numbers to be even bigger this fiscal year.

"This entire past budget year would be really in the pandemic, and we think we will be up somewhere in the neighborhood of another 15 to 20 million pounds," Carter said.

By another measure, Second Harvest's partners are reporting a 40% increase in the number of people they serve since the start of the pandemic, Carter said.

And there are other challenges. Because of COVID-19, food banks and pantries have had to change the way they operate.

Second Harvest, for example, needed more space for volunteers to stay distanced while packing boxes for pantries, schools and senior food programs. So from last May until this month, boxing operations were housed at Charlotte Convention Center — instead of at its Spratt Street headquarters.

And Mecklenburg County food pantry operator Loaves & Fishes actually closed all its brick-and-mortar locations and shifted to a network of 25 drive-thru mobile pantries.

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Loaves & Fishes
Tina Postel, executive director of Loaves & Fishes

On top of that, just getting food was difficult. The supply chain that serves food banks and pantries was in "gridlock," said Loaves & Fishes executive director Tina Postel.

"You couldn't buy toilet paper at a grocery store," Postel said. "You couldn't even buy more than, you know, two packages of spaghetti. So if you couldn't buy spaghetti, that meant we couldn't buy spaghetti."

And then there was the sudden loss of volunteers.

"Our business thrives on volunteers, from packing the food in the warehouse, sorting the food, to actually working," Postel said. "The hands and feet of our pantries are many retired individuals. And so everyone 65 and older was being told to stay home — and that's our lifeblood for our organization."

That meant more work for fewer volunteers. Second Harvest made up for its shortage of volunteers by using National Guard members to help pack boxes at the convention center.

Second Harvest's Carter said their biggest needs right now are volunteers — and money. Food is more expensive, in part because many items have to be trucked longer distances to keep up with demand.

"We are still having to purchase tremendous amounts of food," she said. "Donated food products have gone down significantly in the last year, and so we are having to purchase to supplement."

Carter didn't have exact numbers, but said Second Harvest's budget has skyrocketed since before the pandemic. She said the organization has weathered that storm thanks to an influx of individual and corporate donations, as well as CARES Act and local COVID-19 Relief Fund dollars.

It doesn't look like pantries will be getting back to normal any time soon. At Hope Street in north Charlotte, Reedy says clients are still struggling to pay rent, medical bills and other expenses.

"You're looking at people that were already in a financial crisis," she said. "I think it's going to take a long time for people to get back on their feet to the point where they don't really need the food pantry as much as they do currently."

Postel said Loaves & Fishes is looking forward to reopening its pantries.

"We will reopen brick-and-mortar locations eventually, once everyone is vaccinated and things like that," Postel said.

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Corrected: April 12, 2021 at 3:02 PM EDT
Melody Reedy was identified as Melody Mullins.