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Alabama’s Largest Food Bank Hit with Coronavirus Outbreak

Six members of its 35-person staff have tested positive for the virus, including a truck driver who wound up in the hospital. The first case arose about 10 days ago, and spread fast through the ranks and into management.

by Amy Yurkanin, Alabama Media Group, Birmingham / July 16, 2020
Bags full of food ready to be handed out at a food pantry in Alabama. TNS

(TNS) -- St. John A.M.E. Church in Montgomery has held free food giveaways every other Tuesday for the past decade.

On July 14, business was particularly brisk. Volunteers quickly distributed the day’s allotment of grocery bags to those who drove or walked into the parking lot.

Pastor Roosevelt Williams said he didn’t know if the increased turnout reflected more need in the community or greater awareness of the event. Ever since the pandemic started, the need for food has run high.

“As you can imagine right now, it’s a very active ministry,” Williams said.

Williams purchases food from the Montgomery Area Food Bank, which serves hundreds of food pantries in 35 Alabama counties. The food bank acts as the hub of a food distribution network that has become even more vital since the pandemic struck in March, crippling the economy and causing record unemployment. The area served by the food bank has an estimated 300,000 residents unable to regularly afford groceries.

Now the coronavirus threatens the food bank itself. Six members of its 35-person staff have tested positive for the virus, including a truck driver who wound up in the hospital. The first case emerged about 10 days ago, and quickly spread through the ranks and even into management.

“This is a major hit,” said Richard Deem, CEO of the Montgomery Area Food Bank. “My COO is out. My communications officer is out. Our assistant manager is out. Every day I will meet with my staff and ask them this question, ‘What can we do and what can’t we do today?‘”

So far, the food bank has continued to make deliveries, Deem said. Staff members have stepped up to keep supplies flowing to local food pantries. But almost all the positive cases have happened in the last week. Deem said he thinks the remaining employees have less chance of infection, but more cases could make it difficult to continue their work.

“I had some folks calling me yesterday saying I’m sorry your food bank is closed,” Deem said. “We are not closed. But this definitely disrupts it.”

The outbreak coincided with an influx of food from the United States Department of Agriculture. Deem and his remaining staff have been struggling to expand their refrigeration capacity. And some clients have been concerned about the safety of the food they received.

“We’ve put a lot of things in place where there is no contact during deliveries,” Deem said. “ A lot of people are asking, are they going to get food that has COVID-19 on it? The CDC says that is very unlikely.”

Ricky Martin, pastor of Triumph Church near Clanton, said he relies on the Montgomery Area Food Bank to provide groceries to more than two dozen people and families that rely on the food pantry. If the service were disrupted, he is not sure where people in this rural stretch of Alabama could turn.

“For our church personally, you are looking at 25 to 30 families would go lacking,” Martin said. “A lot of children would go lacking because there are no other agencies that provide this service.”

At both St. John A.M.E. and Triumph Church, people do not need to provide any documentation or paperwork to receive food.

“Most people know us and drive up on Tuesday,” Williams said. “Every now and then they get off the bus and walk up.”

Williams said many of his clients are older and struggling to make ends meet on a fixed income. Martin sees families, and many mothers with children

“We’re not asking for any information as far as how much money they have,” Martin said. “We just need to know that they are in need.”

Martin said the need for food hasn’t increased since the pandemic in Chilton County. The area was already struggling, he said.

“Chilton County is a very poverty stricken area,” Martin said. “We typically serve the ones who are already in poverty. The Montgomery Area Food bank has really done a terrific job helping us do that.”

Deem said the truck driver who initially came down with coronavirus is doing better. Staff members who tested positive still receive full pay and are not required to take sick days. Financially and logistically, it has been difficult, he said. Deem said the food bank followed CDC guidelines to prevent the spread of coronavirus, but also put in more restrictions to keep employees apart.

On Friday, the food bank had an event to honor a shipment of eggs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But the celebration was short-lived.

“One of my employees come up after and told me he tested positive,” Deem said. “First thing he said to me is boss, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I can’t be here Monday because I know we have a lot to do.”

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©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

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