FISH had the food. What it didn’t have were many drive-thru takers.
FISH Westside Food Pantry of Vancouver fed hungry families while blocking the transmission of coronavirus Saturday morning by loading up clients’ car trunks with pre-packed boxes and bags of food. Clients stayed behind the wheel, so no close contact was necessary beyond a quick through-the-window check-in with an intake volunteer.
But FISH managers had carefully controlled the spread of information about this two-hour experiment because they were trying to avoid getting overwhelmed by a huge queue of vehicles, like the ones that have occasionally bogged down streets outside the Clark County Food Bank during food giveaways, they said. They didn’t want Saturday’s event to go too viral, so to speak.
“We envisioned 500 cars on Harney Street,” said FISH board member Katlin Smith. “We didn’t want that.”
Nothing like that happened; the final tally after two hours was 25 vehicles served. Executive director James Fitzgerald said he’ll re-evaluate before trying another giveaway that deviates from FISH’s usual 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday schedule.
Hunger is definitely out there and on the rise thanks to coronavirus, Fitzgerald said.
“We’ve been seeing an increase in new clients, a lot of people who have never accessed a food pantry before,” he said. “They are people who have lost their jobs, and we know that’s going to continue to be the case into the future.”
Regular client visits have remained pretty steady, Fitzgerald said, but he’s worried about a slight drop-off in visits from senior citizens who may be reluctant to come because they’re especially vulnerable to disease.
Fitzgerald wants them to know the FISH Westside Food Pantry has changed the way it does business. FISH used to pride itself on letting clients peruse the shelves and make their own selections, supermarket-style, but that casual browsing system ended with the arrival of coronavirus and the need for social distancing.
Now, Fitzgerald said, food boxes are prepackaged by volunteers and slid through a curtain to the client, so social distance is maintained and the client’s touching of surfaces is minimized.
Volunteerism at FISH has also shifted, Fitzgerald said. Senior volunteers who have long made up the bulk of FISH volunteers are more reluctant now, while younger people with extra time on their hands are looking for positive ways to contribute.
“We started volunteering last year,” said Bryan Parmenter, who was volunteering Saturday with his wife, Kayln, and their high-school aged daughters, Ali and Josie. “At Christmas we decided, instead of giving to ourselves, let’s do a year of giving to other people.” Parmenter added that he really enjoys the physical labor of pushing hand trucks and loading boxes.
Many of Saturday’s young volunteers were with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose Northwest Area Self Reliance office and local church leaders organized a delivery of 35,000 pounds of food commodities to FISH in late April — including green beans, oil, sugar, flour, spaghetti, pork and beans, soup and more.
Those supplies have helped stretch FISH’s supplies, Fitzgerald said, at a time when December’s annual Walk-and-Knock donations are depleted and the annual Letter Carriers Food Drive, usually held in May, has been postponed. Also, he said, the opportunity to buy additional cases of food from the Oregon Food Bank Network, a regular source, is temporarily on hold.
But thanks to the huge donation by the church, Fitzgerald said, the supplies getting packed into clients’ car trunks Saturday morning were generous, including included fresh fruit, vegetables, canned fish, baking supplies, mac-and-cheese, bread chili, spaghetti and sauce, plus much more. Each client got 40 pounds of food in all, he said.
“They are really good boxes,” Fitzgerald said.