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Ask Us: How are nonprofits dealing with food insecurity from COVID-19 shutdowns?

Editor’s note: Ask Us is a weekly feature published online Mondays and in print on Tuesdays. We’ll seek to answer your questions about items or trends in Rowan County. Have a question? Email it to askus@salisburypost.com.

SALISBURY — Long lines at food banks have become commonplace images on the internet, cable news and newspapers across the United States, wrote in one Ask Us questioner. The COVID-19 pandemic has generated food insecurity as incomes of many are made tenuous or unavailable because the economic effects of shutdowns.

So, how are local people and nonprofits dealing with food insecurity locally? Do they need assistance from the community?

“One thing that really surprised me during the stay-at-home order is that we did not experience a huge increase in demand for food services,” said Karl Dahlin, who runs the Salvation Army in Salisbury with his wife, Janice Dahlin. “I really though it would spike in response to COVID-19. However, we saw a mostly flat demand.”

Dahlin doesn’t have a sure answer for why that might be.

He thinks it could be partly due to the coronavirus stimulus checks being provided as part of an economic stimulus package passed by Congress. That money has meant that many have resources for food that they might not otherwise have.

There have also been some protections against utility shutoffs and evictions. That extra money, then, would’ve been available to purchase food instead, he said. If rent was only delayed, though, then it will probably be due again in the near future as protections expire, he said.

If Dahlin is correct, then agencies and nonprofits like the Salvation Army, which also provides emergency rent and utility assistance, are going to be faced with a lot of need all at once.

“I think the increase is coming, but it hasn’t happened yet,” echoed Kristine Wiles, the food operations manager at Rowan Helping Ministries.

Government assistance is another way that food insecurity is combated other than food banks and nonprofits. Some changes in those programs might have also decreased food insecurity and prevented long lines at food banks, Wiles speculated.

Food and Nutrition Services (FNS), colloquially called food stamps, are part of that. This federal program provides for low-income families if their gross income falls below a certain threshold depending on the number of family members.

When the pandemic first set in, the Department of Social Services was seeing more FNS applications, said Sheila Holshouser, an Income Maintenance Program administrator at the Rowan Department of Social Services. Other new programs have also been introduced to address coronavirus fallout.

In 44 states, including North Carolina, those qualifying for unemployment are receiving an extra $600 weekly as part of the coronavirus relief package passed in Congress. It’s scheduled to last through the end of July. Normally, the maximum weekly payment is $350 for weekly unemployment benefits in North Carolina.

That program has probably helped with bringing FNS applications back down to a normal place, Holshouser said.

North Carolina is also providing some assistance for school-age children who are eligible for the free lunch program by giving assistance through a new Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer (P-EBT) program. This program does not require an application and the benefits, which are to be used on groceries, will be provided in two installments.

Locally, different schools are also providing some meals during the week might also have helped with food insecurity issues, Wiles said.

However, the Department of Social Services has seen increases in unemployment applications as unemployment numbers have ballooned nationwide, Holshouser said.

As it is, food pantries are still helping combat food insecurity, although some changes have been made because of the nature of the pandemic.

Hope Oliphant is the executive director of the Main Street Marketplace in China Grove. The organization has seen a slight increase in demand for food, Oliphant says. They recently peaked when serving around 125 in one day.

Although the organization usually operates as more like a shopping market, now they are handing out boxes instead. Normally, there is an interview process, but right now the organization is taking people as they come.

“If you say you need food, then we’ll give you food,” Oliphant said.

Main Street Market also has a process of leaving food for three days before handing it out to make sure that it isn’t contaminated.

The Salvation Army of Rowan County has also made challenges to the way the food pantry operates during COVID-19.

The food bank is now a drive up style, with clients encouraged to stay in their cars while Salvation Army staff wearing protective equipment put boxes of food in their trunks. Anyone walking up is asked to keep a six-foot distance from one another, Dahlin said.

At Rowan Helping Ministries, the building is still shut down in order to facilitate social distancing, Wiles said. A tent is set up outside. Someone will take basic information to see if people qualify for aid — such as an address and gross income for the past 30 days — before they send people to the other side of the building. There, a volunteer will put the food in the back of cars.

The hours of Main Street Marketplace are Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

The hours for food distribution at the Salisbury Salvation Army are Monday through Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon. People are asked to schedule appointments ahead of time at 704-636-6491.

Rowan Helping Ministries is open to assist those needing help with food insecurity on Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

Some of those not in need have taken this time to help others. Wiles said that one student at Isenberg Elementary School organized a neighborhood food drive that brought in almost 250 pounds of food.

Oliphant also has been grateful to see people helping others.

“It has been overwhelming the number of people that have donated masks and cleaning supplies,” she said.

Main Street Marketplace is in need of volunteers to help pack boxes of food and give out food as well as monetary donations or food items, Oliphant said. However, they are asking people over the age of 65 not volunteer. Donations can be made on the website — marketandmeeting.org — or by mail or drop-off.

Donations to the Rowan Salvation Army can be made online at www.SalvationArmyRowan.com or at 1-800-sal-army. Food, especially dry goods such as mac and cheese, can be donated from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday using the drive through, Dahlin said.

Volunteers can sign up to help Rowan Helping Ministries at their volunteer portal on their website, rowanhelpingministries.org. Food donations and monetary donations are also being accepted, Wiles said. Monetary donations can be made online, and drop-offs for food donations are accepted Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

“There’s a lot of different avenues for people to volunteer and contribute,” Wiles said.

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