Volunteers prepare food at Father's Table Food Pantry. Courtesy | El Bethel Pentecostal Church
Vol­un­teers prepare food at Father’s Table Food Pantry. Courtesy | El Bethel Pen­te­costal Church

More people are seeking help from local food centers, according to the directors of two pantries.

“So far as our lunch pro­grams have gone, we have seen a steady increase in lunches since June,” said Kathy Stump, office manager at the Hillsdale Sal­vation Army. 

Stump said con­tinued shut­downs due to COVID-19, a dis­rupted food chain, rising food prices, and a lack of vol­un­teers are causing dif­fi­culties for the oper­ation of food pantries across the county.

Sal­vation Army isn’t the only food pantry in Hillsdale to see the con­tinued impact on the cit­izens of Hillsdale due to COVID-19.

Mellisa Watson, director of Father’s Table Food Pantry at El Bethel Pen­te­costal Church, said while their numbers began to decrease, they are seeing an uptick again. She said this is because COVID-19 unem­ployment ben­efits and stimulus pay­ments have ended.

“Espe­cially now that the stimulus and aid has run out, numbers have started to pick back up,” Watson said. 

Stump sees similar trends across Sal­vation Army’s food dis­tri­b­ution pro­grams. The number of requests for their emer­gency food boxes has gone down but con­tinues to fluc­tuate month-to-month.

The Hillsdale Sal­vation Army Free Com­munity Lunch program started at the beginning of the COVID-19 pan­demic in 2020. Stump said she is seeing unusually high numbers of people seeking help, with the program serving 1,043 people in June, increasing to 1,566 people in September.

There was low demand for the lunch program in January and Feb­ruary, some­thing that Stump said is most likely due to weather. This year, atten­dance was also low in April and May, as the com­munity started reopening. 

“We saw things opening up in April and May for the com­munity. But then things shut back down again,” Stump said. “I believe the pan­demic food stamps that people were receiving helped them.”

The ending of COVID-19 aid isn’t the only thing affecting Hillsdale families.

Watson also said the rise in food prices and dis­rup­tions to the supply chain has led to a growing need in the com­munity for assistance. 

“The prices are going up and the avail­ability is going down,” Watson said.

The food pantries are also seeing school clo­sures impacting at-risk fam­ilies across Hillsdale.

“We’re seeing an impact on atten­dance at the food pantry because of school clo­sures,” Watson said. “It’s been a struggle for people who have their kids at home.”

More people are seeking material assis­tance as gov­ernment aid during the pan­demic has ended, Stump and Watson said. 

“The need con­tinues to grow as the unem­ployment pro­grams have ended. Those that were getting unem­ployment ben­efits are now trying to find their jobs,” Stump said.

Watson said that the biggest need in the com­munity is getting people back to work. 

“Everybody’s hiring, but there seems to be some kind of element keeping people from working,” Watson said.

With this growing need in the com­munity, Stump said food pantries across the county are looking for help and dona­tions from the community.

She said they would not have been able to meet the community’s needs up to this point without the dona­tions they receive, espe­cially bulk dona­tions from local grocery stores. 

Father’s Table is com­pletely pri­vately funded. Watson said the oper­ation of the pantry depends upon the support of the com­munity and con­tinued donations.

Both Watson and Stump encouraged com­munity members to reach out to local food pantries to learn their biggest donation needs and how they can best volunteer. 

“Our vol­unteer force is down. We really need vol­un­teers,” Stump said. 

The Sal­vation Army pantry has many dif­ferent pro­grams that vol­un­teers can help with. 

Ethan Richards, a Hillsdale College senior, is the GOAL program leader for the Sal­vation Army and has vol­un­teered at the group’s food pantry since the summer of 2020. 

“Some­thing that I love about vol­un­teering with the Sal­vation Army is that much of the work that we do has imme­diate reper­cus­sions on the lives of those we serve,” Richards said.

In addition to being a vol­unteer himself, Richards serves as the GOAL program leader and works to get stu­dents involved and serving in the community. 

“My role in the GOAL program is to essen­tially be the bridge between the Sal­vation Army and the col­lege’s student body,” Richards said. 

Richards encouraged his fellow Hillsdale stu­dents to get involved and start reaching out to the Hillsdale com­munity to see what needs must be met and how they can best be of service. 

“The expe­rience has been absolutely amazing,” Richards said.

With the heightened demand throughout the county, the food pantries across Hillsdale con­tinue to work hard to serve the com­munity and meet the needs of those seeking assistance.

“Just let people know we are still out here,” Watson said.