Riverwest Food Pantry finds new purpose amid the pandemic

Riverwest Food Pantry finds new purpose amid the pandemic

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“Back when the pandemic started, we had a dramatic switch within our pantry operation,” explains Amanda Farendorf, the Mission Advancement Associate for the Riverwest Food Pantry. “It required a lot of creative thinking and quick thinking of like, how are we still able to serve our community best, especially in the beginning, where there’s a significant amount not really known about Covid-19 and how it could spread.”

Riverwest Food Pantry is located at St. Casmir Church’s basement. Normally, the pantry operates as a place where people could meet each other while eating brunch on Saturday or shopping for food, but due to the pandemic the brunches have been suspended and the shopping has shifted to an outdoor drive thru.

To keep the community connection, Amanda says the pantry started curbside chats where volunteers and staff talk with people as they drive up to get food. She credits some of the conversations she’s had for helping her get through the pandemic. 

“I was having a super down week of Covid,” says Amanda. “I went to the pantry, we were just starting to close, and a woman came racing into our parking lot asking for food.”

Amanda says they grabbed her some food and as she talked to the woman, she burst into tears.

“She’s like, ‘I’m so done with Covid, I’m so done with this,’” says Amanda. “She really poured her heart out to me about a lot of her struggles.”

Photo courtesy Riverwest Food Pantry

Amanda says she listened rather than trying to solve or fix her problems.

“I remember her looking in the mirror and being like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m a mess. My makeup is everywhere and I’m just a mess,’” says Amanda. “I just started laughing and I was like, ‘You know what? I looked like that yesterday.’” 

Those moments have reminded her the pantry is a place where people can build relationships..

Amanda says the pantry has helped some 4,800 households since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s a little more than 12,000 people. The pantry has given out nearly 87,000 pounds of food — an enormous amount for just one pantry primarily serving the neighborhood and surrounding zip codes.

Volunteers at the Riverwest Food Pantry bag fresh fruits and veggies | Photo courtesy Riverwest Food Pantry

When the pandemic first hit the number of people who came to the pantry decreased below what they normally serve pre-pandemic. Amanda says it’s because people wondered if the pantry was still open and operating as normal. The pantry’s numbers also dipped a bit when government assistance with the pandemic became available to people. She says people sought out the pantry a little less in those moments. As circumstances have changed over time, people have returned.

The pantry gets its work done thanks to volunteers who are out in the rain and now snow as the colder, darker months roll in.

Amanda says staff would ask volunteers if they were tired or fatigued as some come in every week. Their response?

“They’re like, ‘This is my life,’” says Amanda. “‘This is the only thing I see outside my house.’”

Running a pantry during the pandemic isn’t easy, but it has its rewards.

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