With economic hardship being faced in communities across the U.S., Laramie’s nonprofits that feed the hungry are changing their operations to continue providing the services that many depend on.
Laramie Interfaith-Good Samaritan -- which serves as a food pantry, as well as assisting clients with housing, utility billing and more -- has modified its operation to be able to continue its mission while following guidelines meant to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, commonly called COVID-19.
“We have changed the way we operate day-to-day,” said Abby Melbye, Interfaith’s marketing and outreach coordinator. “It used to be people would come in and use the food pantry and we would sit down and interview them for rental and utility assistance, but now we’re trying to prevent as many people from entering the building as possible, for their safety as well as ours.”
Food bank etiquette would normally be to have as much client choice as possible, said Max Stebelton, assistant director, food pantry manager and volunteer coordinator. But now staff and volunteers are putting together food bags ready to hand out to people who come knock at the nonprofit’s door.
“With this whole change, it would be difficult for us to maintain that client choice, especially when clients don’t know what we have,” he said. “It is something we have had to make a change for just to be able to get food out in the same effective way.”
Requests for financial assistance are now taken over the phone, then vouchers are mailed out Friday, or Stebelton drives them around the city.
The Laramie Soup Kitchen has also changed the way it operates. A tier system was developed that started with extra cleaning measures, then Tuesday saw a second tier where guests weren’t able to serve themselves food that wasn’t prepackaged. Following Gov. Mark Gordon’s order that public places must close, Friday saw the third tier in place where guests lined up at the door and placed orders for the food they would like.
“That’s what we’ll be doing from here until the end of the crisis,” Executive Director Ted Cramer said. “That way we’ll be able to maintain that sort of flexibility where we are able to engage with our guests and get them the items they’re most interested in, which is great because it minimizes food waste.”
There are two additional tiers depending on how things develop with the spread of COVID-19. The next tier, Cramer said, would be to pre-package food with no choices. The next, sadly, would be to close down the operation.
“I would really hope that there’s not a need in the next couple of weeks for restrictions more strict than what we’re on now, because for our guests, that could be really devastating,” Cramer said. “Especially for the individuals who think this is going to be a short-term crisis. We’re still experiencing that there are people who are afraid to come in because of COVID-19 or they are just like, ‘This is going to pass after a week,’ and the drawback with both of those, if there’s a regulation that’s passed down, then people are going to run out of food in their houses. If we have to close, there’s not going to be anything left.”
The Soup Kitchen, Cramer said, hasn’t seen an influx of new guests, though they have seen new faces. Interfaith, on the other hand, has seen an increase in people wanting to use the pantry, Stebelton said. On Tuesday, for example, Interfaith saw five new clients in one day, which Stebelton said he’s never seen before.
“We’re expecting that to continue,” Stebelton said. “We’re going to be here to help. We’ve always had an open door policy, and we will accept anybody. There are no income guidelines. For commodities, it's a different story because it's federally mandated, but for food donated, we will give that out to everybody and anybody that needs it.”
Cramer said he encourages anyone, whether they’ve sought out the Soup Kitchen’s services in the past or not to come down if they need a meal.
“All are welcome,” he said. “There’s no paperwork required. If you’re hungry, come down. That’s all it takes.”
With an increase in demand for services, Interfaith is facing greater need for help.
“People who can’t work that are not able to pay rent and utilities, things add up quickly,” Melbye said.
Nonperishable food items are helpful for the pantry, and Stebelton said healthy options are appreciated. Monetary donations can support the food pantry and other parts of Interfaith’s mission.
At the Soup Kitchen, volunteers are no longer being accepted as the staff tries to control its workspace for health reasons. With the annual fundraiser that accounts for more than a quarter of the kitchen’s funding canceled, Cramer said financial contributions will be critical going forward.
Despite everything, the Soup Kitchen’s staff is not overly stressed amid the uncertain times, Cramer said. He expects the enterprise has the capacity to meet the needs of the community.
“I think the thing I’m most proud of that we’ve been able to accomplish is that our staff has been incredibly calm,” said Sarah Carroll, the Soup Kitchen’s deputy director. “We had a staff meeting last Friday morning where we outlined our plan, and there was no hesitance, no panic, everyone was calm and collected and said, ‘We’re going to do everything we need to do.’ That’s pretty amazing.”
Stebelton also said he’s comfortable with the place Interfaith is in now, even with the anticipation of increased need. While it is more difficult doing phone interviews instead of meeting face to face for client services, he expects they’ll persevere.
Donations and financial contributions at Interfaith of late have been robust. But Melbye said her concern is that there will be charity fatigue as the worst of the crisis blows over. For those affected by the COVID-19 outbreak economically, their needs will continue even after life returns to normal.
“This is going to have long-term effects,” she said. “I worry that once the hype dies down that we’ll still have more clients than usual, people will still be dealing with late payments, and we’re going to continue to need donations. We needed donations before this; we’ll need donations after this is over, so we encourage people not to donate everything at once.”
To help sweeten the deal with donating, Interfaith is offering a hat for those who contribute more than $50 and a sweatshirt for donations more than $125.
Even without the incentive of clothing or the hype of a crisis, Stebelton said he’s always appreciated the spirit of Laramie as a community in his decade at Interfaith.
“I feel like everyone really cares for each other, and appreciates each other and tries to help their neighbors,” he said.
The Wyoming Community Foundation also is raising funds that will be utilized to address Wyoming’s immediate needs in the face of COVID-19.
The statewide organization has established the COVID-19 Immediate Needs Fund and will also be accepting money for their Unrestricted Endowment. The two funds will allow grantmaking to nonprofit organizations immediately and as needs arise in upcoming months and coming years.
Go to www.wycf.org to donate or call 307-721-8300.