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    Loaves and Fishes experiences increased demand during the pandemic

     

    Phoebe Harms/Ithaca Week

    Since its inception in 1983, Loaves and Fishes of Tompkins County has been a consistent resource for food and hospitality for those in need. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, food insecurity has become an issue for many more Americans, and Loaves and Fishes services have become more vital than ever. 

    Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, the organization served meals to anyone in need in its dining room at St. John’s Episcopal Church. When in-person activities ceased in March, the staff knew they needed to find a way to continue their services; and though they were unable to provide hospitality to guests in their dining room, the organization was able to transition to to-go meals and continue providing for the community. 

    How it works 

    Loaves and Fishes serve to-go meals in the parking lot of St. John’s, allowing guests to safely pick up their food and take it with them. The staff is completely run by volunteers, who prepare and package each meal. There is always a choice of a meat-based dish along with a vegetarian or vegan option to ensure anyone who needs a meal is able to receive one. 

    After a few weeks of using this new pick-up system, Katy Noonan, Community Relations Director for Loaves and Fishes, said the number of meals served per week began growing rapidly. What had once been 550-600 served meals a week quickly became 1,000-1,200, with a new wave of guests coming to receive meals. 

    “We are seeing employed people who are finding themselves for the first time in need of this kind of help,” Noonan said. 

    In addition to a number of new guests, the organization has also had a new group of volunteers join during the pandemic. 

    “We had people who had wanted to volunteer with us for years, but their schedules didn’t fit our needs,” said Noonan. “But all of a sudden, they were working from home and their hours changed completely, and they were able to come to us.”

    Preparing to-go meals/Photo courtesy of Katy Noonan

    Food Insecurity in Tompkins County

    Feeding America has projected that up to 54 million Americans will have been food insecure because of COVID-19, and Tompkins county is no exception. In 2017, 18 percent of Tompkins and Cortland counties were reported to have dealt with food insecurity, and this number is expected to have been magnified by the pandemic. 

    Because of this, Loaves and Fishes has expanded its services beyond to-go meals in order to accommodate those affected by the virus. Noonan said the organization began collaborating with other nonprofits in the area, like the Salvation Army and the Department of Social Services, to deliver meals to those who couldn’t retrieve them. Because of this, individuals or families who are quarantining, homeless shelters and those without means to pick up a meal can still have one. 

    “This is a community where there is a terrific collaboration between nonprofits all the time,” Noonan said. “And this is greater than ever for the services that help people in need.” 

    In addition to its delivery services, Loaves and Fishes has plans to address a new wave of problems that may arise in the colder months. In previous years, the organization had opened its dining room an hour early to accommodate those who were outside in the cold. Because of the coronavirus and the shutdown of its dining hall, Loaves and Fishes will be introducing a “Community Warming Space,” open five and a half hours a day. The warming space will serve hot drinks and have staff present at all times to ensure social distancing protocols are being enforced. The warming space is a part of another collaboration with the Tompkins County Public Library, which will be allowing Loaves and Fishes to hold the warming space in the BorgWarner room there. Noonan said these collaborations have not only emphasized how strong this community is, but addressed issues outside of just those regarding the pandemic. 

    “It’s just another example of the strength of this community,” Noonan said. “Not just with food insecurity, but a commitment to address other issues related to unemployment, poverty, housing insecurity that have all come at increased rates with the economic downturn.” 

    Aside from the warming space, Loaves and Fishes’ future plans include serving the community as it always has, no matter the circumstance. 

    “I’ve played quite a few roles in this community, and I will say that this is the most satisfying and the most amazing work I’ve ever done,” said Noonan. “I’m grateful to be a part of it.” 

    Those interested in volunteering for or donating to Loaves and Fishes can visit their website: https://loaves.org/

    Bagged to-go meals / Photo courtesy of Katy Noonan
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