The YMCA in Fall River closed down in mid-March due to the coronavirus, but for the last two Saturdays, it has once again been a hub of activity. Instead of offering exercise classes or swim lessons, though, the Y has begun supplying something far more basic: food.
Two weeks ago, for the first time, the Y distributed food in its parking lot. So many people showed up that the food ran out in about a half hour.
Last Saturday, volunteers were better prepared, with 10,000 pounds of food. Some walked to the parking lot to pick up ready-made bags, while drivers stayed behind the wheel as volunteers, wearing masks and gloves, put the food into backseats and trunks. The goal of the effort was two-fold: Supply food, and keep everyone safe.
“We actually went and volunteered (at another food distribution site) to try to get the system down,” said Stephanie Mancini, executive director of the Fall River YMCA. “Because if don’t have a system down for packing groceries, you can really bump into each other. That whole social distance thing goes out the window.”
Across Massachusetts, as COVID-19 shutdowns take an economic toll, an unprecedented number of people are seeking food assistance. The Greater Boston Food Bank, which supplies food for distribution in 190 towns and cities across Massachusetts, has seen just over a 50 percent increase in demand from last April. But the biggest challenge is ensuring the food is delivered safely.
The Fall River YMCA began distributing food because several other nonprofits in the community shut down, concerned about a lack of adequate space to safely distribute groceries and serve meals. The size of the Y parking lot is ideal for what’s become a preferred method of food distribution: grab and go.
“We’re definitely trying to fill a need that’s not being filled as it normally would,” Mancini said.
In the town of Arlington, Arlington EATS has changed its distribution model completely. Instead of allowing people to come into the facility and pick out their own food items, volunteers now do their best to fulfill an online grocery wish list. Another set of volunteers, from the town’s newly activated Medical Reserve Corps, then deliver the food directly to people’s doorsteps.
“If feels like a new program every week. We’ve been adapting and changing as things change in the community,” said Arlington EATS Executive Director Andi Doane. “It’s been very challenging.”
Since the crisis began, the number of people seeking food in Arlington has gone up by about 35 percent, she said.
“I got a phone call from a single mom who said, ‘I used to volunteer for you and now I need food.’ So we anticipate, of course, as [the] crisis goes on, we’re going to see a lot more new faces,” Doane said.
That’s also the prediction from the Greater Boston Food Bank’s president, Catherine D’Amato.
“If you think of 300,000 people have already applied for unemployment (in Massachusetts) and that number will increase,” D’Amato said. “I personally don’t believe we go back to normal. I think we must go forward to a new normal and, whatever that is, we’re starting to see that.”