Mask in place, Jim Luoma makes his way into the Enfield Food Pantry to a chorus of volunteers’ cheery greetings. His blue eyes crinkle and you can imagine the smile under his mask.
“I don’t need a lot of dry goods. I have a lot already. Save that for someone who needs it,” Jim says. “I just need milk and a little meat.”
Pastor Jean Owners, pantry coordinator, points him toward cartons of powdered milk. “Those will be good at the cabin,” she says.
Whenever he leaves his rural home in Trumansburg to run errands, Jim self-quarantines for a few days at the small rustic cabin on the property of the home he shares with his wife, Cindy, who is asthmatic. Cindy is so afraid of the COVID-related complications that can hit those with lung issues, she hasn’t left their property since the since mid-March, Jim says.
Jean seems to know all about Jim, a pantry client for three or four years. When he began to lose weight last fall while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for lung cancer, she made sure he had the high-calorie nutritional drinks that sustained him when his treatments ravaged his appetite. Jean is relieved she has been able to get the shakes from the Food Bank; previously, the pantry had to raise private donations to keep them in stock. Jean is pretty sure those drinks helped save Jim’s life when he was shedding pounds during treatment. Thankfully, he is currently in remission, but he still relies on the extra nutrition.
“Jean is phenomenal. She will not turn anyone away,” Jim says. “She’s got a heart that will not let anyone go hungry. She truly does care.”
Prior to the pandemic, Enfield Food Pantry served about 200 families a week at its distributions on Sundays and Mondays. Within two weeks of school and business closures in mid-March, pantry attendance doubled. In April, the pantry served an average of 130 elderly, 470 children and 700 adults each week.
But Enfield was ready.
“Our distribution the second week of March went on as normal but while we were doing it, I was thinking about and determining what our clients would need in a lockdown,” Jean says. “I have been taught, and I believe, that panic leads to very poor decision making. I just started looking at the administration angle of how we’d deal with a lockdown. We did a lightning-fast transformation of pantry operations in the first week.”
Volunteers compiled all the available pantry products into an online shopping list on the church website and set up a Google form for clients to select drive-thru pickup times. Client choice is a matter of dignity, according to Jean. But in the early days of coronavirus fears, the risk of people mingling in the pantry was too great.
“We delivered a high volume while maintaining client and worker safety. I was so proud,” Jean says. “By that next week, we had taken orders from over 300 clients who selected exactly what they needed from our menu. We gathered a group of volunteers who spent two days packing and another group who delivered packages to the trunks of vehicles as they drove past the pantry.”
Concerned about other pantries’ ability to serve during the shutdown, Enfield Food Pantry removed its town residency requirement. Displaced workers from local businesses stepped in to volunteer. The pantry organized a team of delivery drivers for high-risk clients and those without transportation, including service vehicle drivers from Midstate Basement Authority in Newfield.
Enfield was among the first pantries to re-open its door to clients in May. Preserving clients’ dignity and providing a stigma-free grocery-shopping experience are among Jean’s top priorities for the pantry. She worked with the Tompkins County Health Department to re-open while respecting social-distance guidelines.
Jean says she and the Enfield community learned a lot about hunger and need during the COVID crisis.
“This whole experience has been such an education for me. We were getting ready to start an expansion program for the pantry and we were fact-finding and bouncing ideas around as to what a facility would look like if we built it from scratch to meet the needs of the community for decades to come,” Jean says. “COVID opened up my eyes to the demands we may be facing repeatedly. And we can’t stumble. Our mission is to be a hunger-free community; we have to be ready.”