IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (KIFI/KIDK) - Since the March shut down due to the COVID-19 health crisis, the Community Food Basket in Idaho Falls has seen the number of community members seeking emergency food assistance skyrocket. They report an increase of 75% to 100% in the number of people served each month. These numbers seem to be the new norm versus even just 6 months ago.
The Idaho Falls Soup Kitchen has also had unpredictable numbers of patrons ranging from 100-150 meals served per day, 7 days a week.
“Since people started getting laid off, we went from seeing about 40 families a day to 70,” Jackson said. “We also started doing a mass community distribution once a month where we’re serving more than 1,000 families in 3 hours. So, our organization has gone from serving about 1,200 families a month to more than 2,000 and that’s been consistent since May.”
In March, both agencies asked all of their committed, regularly helping, 65+ vulnerable volunteers to stay home and stay safe. Executive Director of the Community Food Basket, Ariel Jackson, knew going into this process that many of those volunteers may not return to service. That prediction is now coming to fruition.
With so much uncertainty in the world right now and much of Idaho being considered a COVID-19 hot spot, the majority of the Food Basket’s valued, regular volunteers have fears and concerns about returning to service. It is estimated that from a dedicated pool of over 200 volunteers, only 30 have returned to service.
This has left the remaining volunteers doing so much more with so much less help.
“I need some new, committed volunteers to come in and help us set up teams for every day, so that we can continue to operate at the level we’re operating at now.”
Many of the local service missionaries who have donated their time on a temporary basis may be feeling stretched too thin. Many occasional community volunteers, both from businesses and regular civilians, donate their time as a one-time commitment. Jackson says they need more long-term volunteers.
The drive thru operation at the Community Food Basket requires a minimum of 14 volunteers to run efficiently Monday-Friday. The Soup Kitchen requires a team of 5-6 daily to serve to go meals.
This lack of volunteers available to assist during this huge increase in need has forced the Community Food Basket to make some hard decisions and put families in less than favorable conditions.
“If we don’t start seeing some more volunteers coming to help us, we’re going to have to start limiting our services,” Jackson said. “It could mean cutting back our food distributions from five days to four or three, which I think would be really detrimental to the community. We have lines around the building everyday and to not be able to open to give them food would be hard, not only for us but for everyone, it would affect everyone. So we’re concerned about that.”
The lack of enough helpers at the Food Basket will, and has to some extent already, result in longer wait times for families seeking food donations from the Food Bank. As the lines outside the distribution center at 245 N Placer Ave have switched to drive-thru car loads with volunteers bringing 100 pounds of food to each vehicle, families are now being asked to wait for longer periods of time in their hot cars.
The Soup Kitchen may need to close on days when no team is available and an emergency team cannot be established. The lack of workers has also caused excessive running and lifting for current support volunteers to maintain.
“Volunteering should be rewarding. Volunteering should feed your soul. Volunteering should not be something that is dreaded,” Jackson said. “While we would not be able to operate at all without those currently volunteering, we do not want to dim their light by overworking them or putting them at risk.”
The Community Food Basket is asking the public to donate non-perishable food items and time to their organization in an effort to keep families fed and volunteers from burning out.
“Families kind of living on the edge that are in need of our services, they’re one financial crisis away from disaster,” Jackson said. “And the average timeframe for a family to recover from a financial setback like coronavirus or being laid off or those kinds of things, is at least six months. So we anticipate that this will continue, this trend of seeing more families will continue for awhile.”
Jackson suggests inviting a group to take on a volunteer day every week or month to help relieve some of the pressure on the small Food Rescue Program staff.
They are asking for the public to host a safe food drive or collect diapers and baby items and drop them off at the warehouse located at 1895 N. Boulevard.
They are also asking for financial donations to purchase food, hire additional staff, and buy needed equipment.
The Community Food Basket has a food pantry and warehouse, and also provides They run an urban farm. There are opportunities to volunteer at all locations.
The government funded coronavirus food assistance program is sending the Food Basket fresh produce and fresh meats from farmers who can’t market. Jackson says that will continue as long as funding exists, hopefully until December. This relief has helped put fresh food on the table for many families, but the Food Basket is lacking shelf-stable foods to donate to those in need. Jackson says 90 percent of their food came from food drives before the pandemic and due to the cancellation of those events, the Food Basket is having to improvise their menus to make sure families are getting enough food. Each family receives 25 pounds of fresh produce, dairy and meat from the CFAP program plus about 50 pounds of collected shelf-stable food from the Food Basket. The Food Basket does not have enough resources to continue providing the same amount of shelf-stable food to every family. They are having to improvise usual Food Basket staples for alternatives they have on hand.
“It always looks like we have a lot of food in our warehouse but we run about 4,000 pounds of food a day from the warehouse to the distribution center to give out,” Jackson said. “We always have about a maximum of three months on hand and it goes fast.”
Jackson says their greatest need right now is canned/boxed pasta.
“We love lettuce, we love fresh fruit, we love fresh meat, all of those things, but they have a shelf life” Jackson said. “We’re serving families Monday through Friday, all the time and so we need some things that maybe they could put on their shelf for a meal later in the week.”
Many people in the community are unaware the Food Basket is now accepting donations again after having to shutdown operations due to the pandemic. Jackson says the warehouse on N Blvd and the distribution center on Placer will accept food donations Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. They allow the food to sit for 72 hours prior to distribution as a safety precaution.
Call the Community Food Basket in Idaho Falls at 208-524-0994 to find out ways you can serve our hungry community.