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.