Imagine preparing 60 hot, complete lunches a day, six days a week, with a crew of rotating volunteers. Complicating the undertaking is the fact that the coordinator never knows ahead of time what food items will be available as most of the food items come from donations. Now try to imagine the challenge when the demand for meals doubles almost overnight and the number of regular volunteers are unable to work. This is the challenge faced by the Kent Social Services Program Manager Marquice Seward and Kitchen Coordinator Bill Bowen.
As Ohioans, we are all making adjustments to life during a pandemic. Agencies serving the economically vulnerable are no exception as they adapt to the new reality of greater demand for their services, especially for services that are essential. KSS, Kent's major food center, has needed to quickly undertake major changes to its food distribution system in response to higher demand and the need for increased safety precautions during the pandemic. The customary distribution involves on-site hot meals six days a week and grocery “shopping” by over 240 households a month. To avoid the necessity of people entering the building where food is handled, both the hot meals and the groceries are now delivered directly to homes. This has been a major shift requiring new resources.
The two person staff of KSS had to first address labor needs during the perfect storm of problems – increased demand for services and decreased labor from volunteers. Most of the regular volunteers at KSS are older adults, a population highly vulnerable to the COVID virus. For their safety, they have been temporarily replaced by young adults, some of whom were already volunteering and some who are newly laid off from employment. These devoted individuals are working hard to provide food to an ever growing number of households.
Typically, KSS serves from 50 to 60 individuals at lunch time. This number has more than doubled, with Chef Bill now serving an astounding 120 meals per day! This number is expected to increase as every day, several new individuals call asking for a meal. The meals are packaged for take-out by volunteers and quickly delivered to consumers by drivers from Emerald Transportation.
The pantry program has seen an enormous increase in new participants. In March 2019, the number of individuals receiving food from the pantry totaled 297. The March 2020 beneficiaries skyrocketed to 510 individuals. During 2019, the number of new households accessing the pantry averaged 17 households per month. In March 2020, first-time participants totaled 80 households. This is a sad, but not surprising situation as wage earners, especially those with lower wages, are struggling with reduced or no income.
Temporarily, the participants in the food pantry program are restricted from on-site access to select their food items. Instead, volunteers pack food bags with perishable and non-perishable food items, based on the family size. The food is dropped off on the consumer's porch on designated days based on geographic areas for efficient use of transportation. Despite the inability of consumers to choose their food products, Marquice Seward said, “There have been no complaints at all. In fact, pantry participants have taken the time to call KSS expressing their gratitude for the food they have received.”
KSS has always followed food sanitation guidelines under the supervision of the Kent City Health Department. Now however, many new practices are in place. To ensure proper social distancing, only 10 individuals are permitted in the building at a time. Everyone entering has their temperature taken and is equipped with gloves and a face mask, often a mask that was handmade by compassionate folks in Kent. Strict disinfecting of work areas and food preparation surfaces has been expanded.
Not surprisingly, costs are rising due to the increase in resources needed for safety precautions, transportation for home deliveries and the significant increase in the amount of food distributed. Like virtually all food programs, KSS, an affiliate of Family & Community Services Inc., depends upon the local community, including United Way, for its total revenue. Without the generous support of the community for volunteer labor, gift cards, monetary contributions and food donations, KSS would not exist.
KSS employees are often asked for their preference for the form of donations – food or money. Both are equally valued. Monetary contributions are particularly appreciated as a dollar is stretched much further with purchases from its partner, the Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank than from purchases from retail grocery stores. However, the availability and variety of food items from the Food Bank varies from week to week. To provide a nutritionally balanced selection of food items, KSS depends upon local food donations. Food donations are particularly appreciated during the pandemic as staff do not have time to shop for groceries at local stores.
Donations can be dropped off at the facility located at 1066 S. Water Street, Kent from 9:00 AM and 3:00 PM, Monday through Friday. To ensure safety precautions, on-site visitors are encouraged to ring the doorbell. Due to the limited hours that KSS is open, the Kent Police Department, a strong supporter of KSS, has offered to collect food donations and deliver them to KSS. A food collection box is in the Police Dept. lobby.
Another food donation option is to order food online and have it delivered to KSS. This can be accomplished at Acme and Giant Eagle or through online sources such as Amazon. If donating food in this manner, it is important to make sure the delivery takes place during KSS hours of operation.
Many more of our neighbors are struggling financially. Yet, there is a silver lining to this tragedy. Kent area citizens are stepping up in unprecedented numbers to support the KSS mission of feeding the hungry. Ms. Seward notes that, “I am moved every day by the acts of generosity demonstrated by residents. I have learned that we can always count on this caring community to help fellow citizens in need. The outstanding community, especially at this time, is deeply appreciated by KSS and those being fed.”