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C-K soup kitchens, food banks shut down

Local soup kitchens and food banks are having a tough time feeding those in need of a meal, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, the Government of Ontario declared a state of emergency banning all bars and restaurants, except to the extent that such facilities provide takeout food and delivery. The ban also forced soup kitchens to shut down. 

“I wish I had answers for this; it came so quickly that I wish we had time to form contingency plans. Everyone is readjusting and scrambling,” said Rev. Mike Maroney of First Presbyterian Church.

There are more than 20 churches across the municipality that offer meals to those in need, some ranging between weekly food service to monthly.

First Presbyterian Church cancelled its weekly Saturday morning breakfast until April 4 and will reassess closer to the date if they will extend the closure. Maroney said they do not have an answer for what they will do in the meantime.

The 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak taught health officials how to better prepare the health-care system in cases of pandemics. Local services that help the vulnerable said they wish they had been better prepared.

“SARS didn’t cause us to think, ‘What should we do if something like this happens?’ No one my age has seen this in their lifetime,” said Maroney, 61. “I can’t remember anything that approximated this and the speed which it developed.”

Michael Gavin, co-ordinator of Interfaith Caring Kitchen at St. Ursula’s, said they have also suspended their bi-monthly Wednesday lunches, which may include their April 1 meal.

“Based on what I heard this morning (in a teleconference with CK Public Health) there seems to be a real concern for this vulnerable population. Most groups want to come up with a system that can provide meals through a take-out situation,” he said.

For the most part, soup kitchen providers are on their own without government help at any level, aside from a few community groups interested in sharing resources, Gavin said.

The board of Chatham’s Outreach for Hunger food bank has decided to close its doors for a week due to its high number of senior volunteers who are at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. They have also suspended their Thursday drop-ins – which gave 100 families per week perishable foods – until further notice.

Brenda LeClair, executive director of the food bank, said this is also the first time that they have dealt with an emergency pandemic situation and are not too sure how they will proceed. 

“We will re-evaluate how to move forward and distribute food,” she said. “We’re dealing with a vulnerable population as far as the food population goes. We need to both keep people fed and our volunteers safe.”

Outreach for Hunger was recommended to give their clients two to three weeks worth of food in one shot, but LeClair said they are in no position to do so, anticipating that donations will go down with residents tightening their own belts during the economic downfall, stocking up for themselves, and isolating as much as possible. 

“But this is not a panic situation. We will give people basic things so they can put food on the table and feed their kids. They will get something,” LeClair stressed. “Just not what we normally provide.”

So far the food bank is looking at pre-packing emergency bags and having those available at the door with limited staffing handing out packages to one person at a time. LeClair said they usually provide a week’s worth of food supplies to 25-40 people a day.

“It definitely is a learning lesson to put something in place locally with our own organization and, those of us that belong to the provincial associations, to put an emergency preparedness plan in place to take care of the vulnerable,” LeClair said.

In the meantime, C-K NeighbourLink is delivering groceries to people because of the food banks closure. Normally the group delivers one to two packs of groceries a week, upon request, but now they are delivering up to four a day, said Al Baker, network co-ordinator.

Baker said Praise Fellowship Church has a pantry that is keeping them supplied and their efforts will last as long as the food does. 

April Rietdyk,  General Manager, Community Human Services, said that other social services through the municipality are working on putting plans in place to help the most vulnerable, such as the homeless.  

Right now most services are still operating to meet their basic needs.

All services said they would re-open as quickly as possible and urge those in need to check out their individual websites or social media pages for updates.

Don Shorpshire, CAO of the municipality, said he has seen offers of support from the community on social media and encourages others to share resources they find.

“As far as getting prepared goes, this is unprecedented for all of us. The last time something like this happened was the Spanish Influenza over a century ago. There just isn’t a precedent. SARS did strengthen the public health system in terms of its preparedness, but these kinds of measures – mass closings of private and public facilities - this is new territory,” said Dr. David Colby, the municipality’s medical officer of health, urging that all closed kitchens use a take out system as much as possible.

Praise Church held its last piping hot lunch on Tuesday afternoon and will be switching to bagged sandwiches handed out at the door until further notice.

Karen Hunter, executive director of the Chatham-Kent Women’s Centre, said they are still operating their emergency shelter but will be doing screenings for those entering the building.

Their in-person counselling services are suspended, with staff now talking to clients via phone. Hunter said if people at the shelter become infected, they are not sure what they will do.

“I mean I have never been through a pandemic and don't know anyone who has. I think everyone is scrambling and panicking. But from our point of view everyone is doing their best.”

Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative, The Chatham Voice