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Demand at Anchorage food pantries grows as coronavirus pandemic spreads

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Adam Ziegler, executive director of New Hope Compassionate Ministries, had empty shelves for the first time on Wednesday, March 18, 2020, after Tuesday's food distribution. Ziegler has seen an increase in clients at their food pantry at 1220 E Street in Anchorage since the coronavirus restrictions began. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Pantry shelves at New Hope Compassionate Ministry in Anchorage’s South Addition neighborhood are stripped of staples like canned soup, rice, peanut butter and pasta.

As many Anchorage residents stay at home amid the coronavirus clampdown or find themselves suddenly out of work, food pantries in Alaska’s biggest city are seeing a surge of need, operators say. And they are starting to run with skeleton crews as volunteers — many of them seniors — stay away for fear of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by highly infectious coronavirus.

On a typical Tuesday, New Hope offers fresh and shelf-stable food to about 150 households. This week, 215 families showed up, many of them first-time users, according to Adam Ziegler, executive director and pastor.

“We’ve never had totally empty shelves like this. We always finished the week with food on the shelves,” said Ziegler.

He expects the numbers of people needing food will mount as the pandemic spreads and low-cost food on grocery store shelves becomes depleted.

Judy Wihlfehrt who works as a server holds Grasshopper at her Spenard apartment on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Wihlfehrt said she has been using food pantries to help supplement the past few years. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Judy Wihlfehrt, 64, started using food pantries a few years ago to supplement her diet after losing her job as an office manager. Now a part-time waitress at Pancho’s Villa, Wihlfehrt said she has seen the number of people using pantries “grow astronomically.”

“It used to be you could be in and out in a few minutes,” she said.

Not anymore. She also said the demographics have shifted. Now she sees lots of people rushing to the pantries after getting off work.

At St. Francis House Food Pantry in East Anchorage, between 80 and 90 families show up on a normal day. On Tuesday, the number climbed to 160, said Tricia Teasley, development and community relations director of Catholic Social Services.

Angel Rickard, center, talks to her caregiver Juanita Bourgeois as they wait in line to receive a senior pantry box at the Lutheran Social Services of Alaska food pantry in Spenard on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

At Lutheran Social Services’ food pantry in Spenard, a line of more than two dozen people snaked around the parking lot late Tuesday afternoon. With heavy snowflakes clinging to their parkas and jackets, pantry-goers stood shoulder to shoulder, braving the cold as they waited to get in.

Under new rules, the pantry only allows five people to enter at time and asks them to stand 6 feet apart, in accordance with COVID-19 guidance from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention. It’s slowed down how the food distribution process usually goes.

And instead of letting people pick their own groceries, food pantries are now offering prepackaged boxes with the same contents. It’s a way to cut down on virus transmission, said Ryan Chernikoff, pantry manager.

Ryan Chernikoff, a food distribution manager at the Lutheran Social Services of Alaska food pantry in Spenard, places frozen pork loin into a clients cart on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

A homeless man in the parking lot named Nick said he was from Mountain Village and has lived on Anchorage’s streets for eight years. He offered his tube of frozen ground meat and jar of peanut butter to a woman named Connie who was loading her SUV with a food box.

“You don’t want it?” she said.

“I have nowhere to cook the meat,” Nick said.

“What about the peanut butter?” Connie asked.

Motioning with his hand, Nick said he couldn’t keep putting his finger in his mouth and back into the jar for fear of contamination.

Connie offered to give him a drive. Nick declined and pushed his shopping cart through the snow toward Spenard Road.

Ziegler and others who serve food to homeless peopple, the working poor, seniors, disabled people and other vulnerable Alaskans are nervous about what lies ahead.

Suezanne Keller and her son Kaleb wait in their car to receive a family meal kit during the Children's Lunchbox pantry box distribution by Bean's Cafe at the Fairview Recreation Center on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

As the coronavirus spreads, many Alaskans living on the edge will need food, shelter, money and other assistance. They’re not just people who are already homeless. The newly vulnerable might be one medical bill away from bankruptcy. Or they might fall on the ice, break bones and no longer be able to work, service providers say.

One bright spot among the fast-evolving crisis is that new restrictions on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the federal program also known as food stamps, have been lifted, giving the state more leeway to help needy Alaskans, state Department of Health and Social Services Commissioner Adam Crum announced Wednesday.

“We have accepted the waiver,” he said.

Some 80,000 Alaskans use SNAP but a portion had recently seen their benefits threatened after Alaska’s statewide waiver for federal work requirements on able-bodied adults without dependents ended in October. Large swaths of the state including Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough were no longer included in the waiver, meaning adults without dependents stood to see their food benefits limited to three months within a three-year period unless they met certain conditions to be exempt. Food security advocates worried that could threaten Alaska’s safety net.

Bean's Cafe executive director Lisa Sauder and Daren Cole distributed pantry boxes during the Children's Lunchbox program at the Fairview Recreation Center on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Regardless of the reprieve to SNAP, Lisa Sauder, executive director of Bean’s Cafe in downtown Anchorage, said COVID-19’s arrival in Alaska creates an urgent need for financial donations, food and volunteers to assemble food boxes. Bean’s Cafe provides three meals a day to up to 500 people on busy days, she said.

On Monday, it started distributing meal kits at the Spenard and Fairview recreation centers, a service it plans to expand next week, Sauder said.

As elderly volunteers stay home, food pantries are looking for younger Alaskans to step up and help fill the void. With Anchorage School District schools closed at least until the end of the month, families and young people might consider collecting shelf-stable food, assembling food boxes, donating money or otherwise working to fight hunger, provider say.

Volunteer Patti Lovett helped distribute food at the Lutheran Social Services of Alaska food pantry in Spenard on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. (Bill Roth / ADN)

Pat Lovett, a longtime volunteer at Lutheran Social Services, said she enjoys giving food to the needy because she spent her childhood in an orphanage.

“I know hunger. And I want to give back,” Lovett said.

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