Food Bank meets growing needs during pandemic

MOULTRIE, Ga. – As 2020 nears an end, the work is still going on at the Colquitt County Food Bank. With most of the year taking place during a global COVID-19 pandemic, community needs grew, the usual scheduled giving opportunities shut down and the number of volunteers able to spend their time in this noble effort decreased.

But those needs are still being met with unprecedented stock currently stored at the Third Street Southeast location. This building continues to get “swamped” with orders, and those able to help are going non-stop to get the products ready for people to take away.

The realities of the pandemic were enough to impact the Food Bank’s mission temporarily. In November, it was learned a volunteer tested positive for the coronavirus. Therefore, anyone who worked closely with this volunteer had to be tested, and the facility was shut down for the first week of the month of Thanksgiving.

“It was a real challenge for the Food Bank,” said executive director Laura Keith, referring not just to Thanksgiving but the entire year. “We were very fortunate. We had a lot of donations from the community, and we have a really good working relationship with Second Harvest of South Georgia, the food bank in Valdosta. We were able to get food from them and from local businesses.”

On an annual basis, people can count on marking certain dates when a regular food drive takes place. That didn’t happen in 2020 on several counts. In May, there’s the letter carrier drive through the United States Postal Service, but not this year. Keith said that is “huge” for the Food Bank, but she does not know when that will be held again.

“That was a real problem for us,” she said. “The other drives that normally go on we haven’t been able to do. This time of year, the school system always collects food. They call it ‘White Christmas.’ Done it for years and years. This year that’s not going to happen. They will do some, but it will be a tenth probably of what they normally collect.

“So we’ve just been dependent on Second Harvest and the generosity of local businesses and individuals donating money. That’s what we need. It’s wonderful to donate food, [but] our purchasing power is so great. If you go into the store, with $1 you can buy a can of food. We can buy five cans with that $1.”

The math comes out to 50 cans for $10 if spent by the Food Bank.

So without reliable methods of giving, residents might wonder how to donate on their own initiative. But Keith said people are reaching out on their own and the businesses and churches are stepping things up to make the Food Bank a priority.

“Everybody’s hands are so tied. You can’t get out and physically do anything to help,” she said. “We had to totally revamp the whole way we run the Food Bank.”

In terms of volunteers, they usually come in from 14 different civic and church groups, each one working an assigned week. But Keith said they canceled the calendar in March and were reduced to a core of full-time volunteers, a “skeleton crew.” Just on Thursday, that crew was up to 37 orders by 11 a.m. after getting started at 9.

“A lot of things are hard to keep up with,” said Keith, citing maintenance, organization, cleaning and yard work.

(While talking, one of Keith’s volunteers delivered a monetary donation in the form of a check.)

In 2019, the Colquitt County Food Bank averaged 20 to 25 orders per day. After March 2020, Keith said that’s doubled. She said in March alone a day would include 90 orders. While things leveled off, the need reached a “critical” stage before Thanksgiving. Even so, Keith said there’s never an order they couldn’t meet.

“Working with a small number of people, they just have to work a lot harder,” she said. “We have to learn how to work a lot smarter, to be more efficient.”

Plus, fewer people are being exposed to the work of the Food Bank when they can’t come from a civic or church group. That’s missing out on a “fulfilling” experience. And when they have these experiences, they go back to their church or other group and share it, which encourages others to get involved.

“Colquitt County is an amazing place,” said Keith. “People look for a way to give. You can feel so good about giving to the Food Bank. You know if you give money, time, food, it is all turning around and going back 100 percent to help people in Colquitt County.”

Not even Keith, the fourth director in the Food Bank’s history, gets paid. Aside from food costs, the only other expense they would have is keeping the lights on and the refrigerators working. She said they are in need of a new freezer in their main workroom.

An easy way to give without leaving home is to go to colquittfoodbank.org and donate through PayPal. One drop-off location of food items is Robert Huston Ford on Hwy. 133. Besides the website, the Food Bank is also computerized, something Keith credits her assistant director Stephen Gregory.

Another tradition of the Food Bank – established in 1982 – is giving out Christmas baskets when people applied for them. Keith said, going back to the early 1990s, they used a week to put the baskets together and distribute them.

“We had to totally revamp all of that,” said Keith. “We don’t have the manpower to do that. In the month of December, when you come in to get your food order, we are giving you a Christmas basket that day.

“Things are really amping up because of the virus. There are so many more people who are in dire straits. You can see it through the number of orders and people who have never been to the Food Bank before, never had to get assistance.”

The requirements are to live in Colquitt County and bring identification. The Food Bank in previous years closed after Christmas and reopened in January, but this year Keith said they will remain open through the end of 2020.