Volunteering shortage in Kansas


Meals for anyone. Kansas Food Bank is located at 1919 E. Douglas Avenue in Wichita. It serves 85 counties in Kansas. photo courtesy of Kansas Food Bank

Beatriz Moscoso, news editor

A look how COVID-19 has affected food pantries across the state

COVID-19 has affected the way things were normally done in the past. No more parties, no more get togethers, no more seeing family on the weekend, no more going to school full time. Even in-person Mass has a dispensation on it. But perhaps worst of all, many people have lost their jobs and are still struggling for a basic necessity: food. Food banks have been hit hard with demand, but they now have less volunteers than ever.
Brian Walker, President and CEO of Kansas Food Bank, acknowledges how the lack of volunteers has affected them.
“When COVID started, when the first case was diagnosed last year in the United States, we cut all of our volunteers off,” Walker said. “That kind of put us in a bind to finish up some of the projects we had going on by using staff members, so we got it done. Through the summer that just changed the way we did things for a while. Then we started welcoming back a few volunteers. I can think of three individuals we had who have pretty much been volunteering for a couple months. Since they were older they didn’t go anywhere else and they didn’t want to go anywhere else because of COVID so they felt safe coming down and we felt safe having them. We were so worried because we didn’t want to get our staff exposed.”
The adults who come through the food lines often have family to support, including children.
“As we kept going through the year what we’ve had to start doing is make kids packages for them to take home on the weekend,” Walker said. “We make just regular food boxes. All that stuff we used to do with volunteer labor, so what we’ve had to start doing is buying that stuff premade. There’s a few companies around the country that make food packages for kids when they are not in school. We had to start purchasing a lot more products because we didn’t have our own premade. We didn’t have the amount of volunteers to do that. When you volunteered here in the past, you might have 40 people side by side in a line making boxes, but we just can’t do that anymore, so we’ve had to purchase that product, which is okay, but it’s not a long term solution that we can afford to keep doing.”
According to Walker, volunteers have been let back in at limited capacity.
“The last month or so we have slowly invited volunteers back, four or five people in a group,” Walker said. “When I say a group I mean people that would work together, so they’re together at work anyway, so when they are here it’s not like Joe might expose Anne, because they’re already working together. What we are seeing now is we have struggled lately to fill these groups of five up, because everybody feels that we are so close to the vaccine that they don’t want to take that extra chance. People are hesitant. That’s how it’s affected us in this facility here.”
But it’s not just the KFB that’s been affected. There are so many other food pantries all across the state.
“We serve other agencies that we meet the food needs of, like church pantries,” Walker said. “We serve 85 counties of the state of Kansas. The reason everything is not preboxed is because before COVID, agencies would use volunteers to make their own box of green beans. A lot of those places have gone to drive through models, so instead of people coming into a building to grab food, they can just drive through and get the food in their car. They get what they need and lessen the risk of exposure to the virus.”
Despite people needing more food, donations are at a low right now.
“The demand for our services is up anywhere from 36 to 40 percent,” Walker said. “That kind of demand is huge. The availability of food that we would get donated to the food bank is very little right now, so we have to purchase a lot more food. In a 30 month time we can spend a million and a half dollars more than we would have spent at the same time last year. The need for us to purchase food to meet the need is outstanding. That’s going to be the way of the world for us until we can get this COVID thing behind us.”
Walker says that there are things to do to help other than just volunteering. Donations can be made online from the safety of home.
“There’s lots people can do to help,” Walker said. “They can collect food and bring it down to the food bank. Our facility is locked up, but if they call they can leave it at the front door. They can always donate because we’re purchasing so much food every dollar we collect helps us. Some folks may be leery about giving cash; they could buy a Dillons gift card and we can make sure people use it for food. There’s a number of ways to do that. They can get on our website and hit the ‘donate now’ button. We try to make it pretty simple.”
Walker prompts students to help out however they can.
“I encourage students to be involved. I know that that’s hard to do right now volunteer wise,” Walker said. “Keep in mind that once you are able, you can help. Volunteering is a great way to help the community, so when the time is right, get into it.”