Published April 17, 2020, by Frank Gerjevic
“Double for children. Triple for seniors.”
That was the succinct prescription from Steve Worthington, manager and Good Friday crew leader at the Chugiak Eagle River Food Pantry. Those six words capture a hearty response to the upheaval wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Kids are out of school, and may not be getting the usual school-supplied meals. So, in each family’s food box there’s a double share of the standard fare for each child.
Seniors rate as particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. So, there’s a triple share in the box for them. That way they don’t need to venture out so often and thus run less risk of contracting the virus.
On Good Friday at the pantry, tucked into First Presbyterian Church of Eagle River, volunteers backchecked boxes to make sure double and triple shares were there, from pasta to tuna to beans – and for the category “miscellaneous,” that might include salad dressing or a bag of Twix, a little something extra to take the edge off hard times.
Worthington was a steady hand and a fair juggler who fielded calls, checked messages, answered questions and kept new volunteers busy with projects like splitting frozen fish sticks into freezer bags of ten. Ditto for sacks of dog food, without the freezing.
The only signs of the pandemic were the masks people wore, and the extra attention to swabbing surfaces with bleach wipes. And maybe that every box was due toilet paper, “if available.”
Lynn Kyle, the pantry’s director, said the hunker-down orders from the municipality and state have forced some changes. Customers who used to shop inside the pantry now just choose bread, produce and pastry outside while volunteers bring prepared boxes, including preferences when possible, outside to them. That maintains social distancing. Food drives are out for now, but Kyle said cash donations have increased to cover the gap. And grocery stores, groups, and individuals continue to donate food.
“We were thinking we would have to cut the allocations per family,” he said. “But we haven’t had to.” Kyle said he didn’t have precise numbers yet, but that he expected the coming weeks would increase demand over the current monthly averages of 154 families, 1600 people and 20,000 pounds of food.
“We’re holding our own,” he said, using “lots of options, lots of ways, a lot of caring people.”
The all-volunteer Chugiak/Eagle River Food Pantry was in business long before the COVID-19 pandemic, dating back to 1987. But the 40 to 45 volunteers who mask up and go to work there may enjoy an extra blessing these days.
“I find that when you’re in action, that’s a great antidote for anxiety,” said Liz Swenson, the pantry’s volunteer coordinator. “It really burns off some of that nervous energy.” And it’s another way Alaskans have step forth in the spirit of AK Can Do to give time, sweat, goods and money.
Not everyone who might like to volunteer can take the chance. As Swenson pointed out, there’s “a risk to family versus service to the community.”
She said some people have told her they can’t get sick because a spouse would be pulled off frontline health-care duty to care for them. Swenson has assigned some teams of families to food box building, to ease the social-distancing requirement and cut risk.
“It’s a balancing act,” Kyle said. “We certainly don’t want to create a problem, but we don’t want to close the pantry.”
The pantry’s leaders and other volunteers have so far managed the balance, to everyone’s benefit.
“I just love that we can soothe people’s anxiety by giving them food,” Swenson said, evoking the gift of food as nourishing both body and spirit. Further, she said customers appreciate the extra risk. “We get a lot of thank-yous and God-bless–yous.”
Besides, she said, there’s the designation of the pantry’s work as essential in the pandemic. “It’s always nice to think that something you’re devoting your life to is deemed essential.”
While the yearning for the pandemic to end is universal, Swenson said that the response to the pandemic by so many of our neighbors is heartening.
“It’s been a really rewarding time to be a member of this community.”