The staggering level of job loss, which has disproportionately impacted low-income Americans who work in service industries, has increased the resolve of the Lazarus House food pantry staff to remain open.
“People come by and say, ‘Thank you for being open, thank you for this food, thank you for staying here for us’,” said Jeff Hassel, Executive Director. “There is a lot of appreciation from our Guests that we have not closed up and gone home.”
In the first month of the COVID-19 outbreak, the pantry has provided food to as many as 800 families a week.
“We’re still doing a significant distribution even though people have been told to stay home,” said Ken Campbell, who runs St. Martha’s Food Pantry on Hampshire Street in Lawrence, noting these people have put their fears aside for much-needed food.
“We have skyrocketing unemployment, and many people who have not come to food pantries before will come now,” he said.
Keeping the pantry open is worrisome for the staff because of the potential exposure to the coronavirus from hundreds of people within a matter of hours, and then bringing it home to their families.
The stakes are high, especially since there is a COVID-19 surge expected this coming week in Lawrence.
“I am worried about being able to keep this open,” said Hassel. “If someone in the food pantry gets sick, then the rest of the staff has to go home and quarantine.”
The staff has made what they call “loving modifications” to best protect them, their families, and those served.
“The biggest change was a significant alteration to our process of distributing food,” said Campbell. “People are not coming in for a shopping experience; we are prepackaging a bag of groceries for a ‘Grab and Go’ process.”
Bags of groceries are assembled and then pushed from behind a Plexiglas shield one-at-time to Guests who are socially distanced apart.
Lazarus House Staff are so thankful that they can still communicate and connect through conversation and smiling eyes behind the masks yet through the protective shield – crucial to the respect and dignity that is the cornerstone of how Lazarus House interacts with their Guests.
While the selflessness of the staff is noteworthy, so is that of those dropping off food.
“People who I’ve never seen before are calling up and asking if they can drop food off, saying ‘I know it must be difficult’,” said Campbell.
Fred Anderson and his son, long-time supporters of Lazarus House, drove six hours to Maine to load 200 50-pound bags of potatoes onto his trailer. They returned to unload the 10,000 pounds of potatoes for the pantry.
“The only hiccup is that we distribute the food differently,” said Campbell. “Other than that, we’re still doing what we’ve always done and that is to serve our community.”