Food banks, pantries aid Columbus families during COVID-caused food shortages

From the WRBL Internship Assignment Desk

This story was produced as part of the WRBL 2020 Summer Intern program

Lizzie Hedrick, a student at CSU, uses a shopping cart to transport the food with as little contact as possible to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The Wynnton Neighborhood Network is providing vital aid and food assistance to families in the Columbus community while meeting challenges that arise in response to COVID-19.

Started in 1985, the Wynnton Neighborhood Network, or WNN, is an all-volunteer organization that offers food to families in need.

The WNN is composed of eight different congregations: Allen Temple AME Church, Epworth United Methodist Church, Living Grace United Methodist Church, Shearith Israel Synagogue, St. Paul United Methodist Church, St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Temple Israel, and Wynnton United Methodist Church. The food pantry is housed in St. Thomas Episcopal Church.

Mary Lou Jarrell is the president of the Wynnton Neighborhood Network board. Working to alleviate food insecurity, Jarrell depends on her volunteers to keep the WNN food pantry open five days a week.

“We are a completely volunteer organization, nobody gets a paycheck,” Jarrell said. “I would say the average age of our volunteers is early 70 if not mid-70s. Most of us fall under the vast majority. I can think of three people that don’t fall in the over 60 category. It has been a challenge planning [with] volunteers who aren’t healthy enough or feel comfortable enough to continue volunteering during this time.”

COVID-19 introduced new challenges for the organization. Most of the volunteers are in their early 70s, a group that is particularly vulnerable to coronavirus. When businesses began shutting down in mid-March, the WNN reduced its operations to two days a week.

Jarrell said they coordinated with St. Anne’s Catholic Church and Feeding the Valley to ensure that at least one food bank was open every day of the week.

“We required [the volunteers] to be wearing masks, you know?” Jarrell said, “We will roll a buggy of food out to you. Then the client would load the car with their own food. So, we were trying to keep the social distance, the protection of both the client and the volunteer, because I feel like the clients wanted to feel safe coming to Wynnton Neighborhood Network.”

Now, operating five days a week again, the WNN has waived referrals and introduced new measures to keep families and volunteers safe. Instead of families coming into the food pantry to fill out paperwork and receive food, Jarrell and her volunteers bring the food to the car in buggies. All volunteers wear face masks and food packaging is spread out to prevent cross-contamination.

“We just do what we can and we serve those who come to us. We don’t have a limit right now on the number of clients that we will serve in a day. As long as we’ve got the food, we’re happy to give it to them,” Jarrell said.

Jarrell said that the number of families the WNN serves can fluctuate and they even served 60 families on a past Friday. Now they are serving families that have never been to a food pantry before.

“Our numbers have gone up and down, you know?” Jarrell said, “Before we were hit by COVID, we were doing about 20 families a day. That is still our average, maybe 25, but it’s not the same families.”

Another issue caused by COVID-19 is the shortage of canned food in grocery stores. Many grocery stores in the area have instituted a two-item limit on certain non-perishable foods and products which makes stockpiling difficult for food pantries.

“The food supply chain has just given us some challenges, but we’ve still been able to give a good amount of food to our clients including fresh vegetables and fruits that we get from Feeding the Valley,” Jarrell said.

The Wynnton Neighborhood Network is currently in need of canned vegetables like green beans and corn, canned fruit, canned meats, cereal, and peanut butter. Those interested in donating or volunteering can contact Mary Lou Jarrell at wnncolga@outlook.com for more information.

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