Volunteer Evaristo Garcia walks out a load of food boxes at the Marion County food pantry on Friday, April 10. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Over the past two weeks, Gwen Weber has talked to hundreds of people desperate for food, diapers and other necessities as more people lose their jobs or become homebound because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Weber, who normally supervises case managers helping Marion County residents with disabilities, is now also running the county’s hastily-created mobile food bank, trying to connect people with help in a time of crisis.
“They’re ashamed that they even have to ask,” Weber said. Many are telling her, “We lost our jobs, we’ve never asked for food before, unemployment hasn’t come in.”
Recently, she got a call from a mother with eight kids who had run out of diapers.
“She started crying when I said, ‘I’ll bring it to you right now,’” Weber said.
While many local food pantries have switched from a grocery-shopping style pickup to simply loading pre-packed bags into people’s cars, Weber said the county effort reaches people who can’t leave their homes because they’re sick, self-isolating or don’t have transportation.
“We’re doing this so they can stay home and save lives,” she said.
The county gets food Thursdays from Marion Polk Food Share, and boxes of food go out on Fridays to those who have requested them. The weekly delivery is enough for about 200 boxes, and it’s hard to keep up with the demand.
“Last week we ran out of food on Friday,” Weber said.
Case manager Rick Kessel hands a load of food boxes to volunteer Jan Frank at the Marion County food pantry on Friday, April 10. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
A half dozen volunteers marched through a Marion County office Friday morning, grabbing piles of boxes to load in the back of their cars.
They wore masks – some paper, one homemade from a yellow fabric decorated with bumblebees – and double-checked addresses on the side, setting off for deliveries across Salem and in Woodburn.
Most volunteers came from a nearby church that put a group together after a member of the congregation who also works for the county asked for help. Ana Juarez, leader of the woman’s group, said they’ve seen the need for more help and community support as many people’s livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic.
“We plan to do this as long as it’s needed,” she said.
Marion County is also distributing diapers, cleaning supplies and toilet paper to those who request it. Some people ask for food and supplies, while others just call hoping to get cat food or soap. Weber said they do their best to meet those needs, but are running low on some supplies and could use more donations.
Anyone seeking a food box or other items or interested in volunteering can call 503-361-2766 or email [email protected]
Rick Kessel, a drug treatment case manager for the county, has been temporarily reassigned to help with the food bank five hours a day. He organizes volunteers to pack boxes, which this week included canned beans, corn flakes, red onions and oranges. Fresh produce is hard to come by, he said.
Kessel was working to get volunteers to come in on Saturday to deliver boxes that would be packed later Friday.
“We’ve probably still got hundreds to go,” he said.
In each box, they’re including packets with information about other food banks, online resources for learning and keeping busy, and information about other help like food stamps.
He got a call recently from a family that needed formula delivered for their baby.
“That was kind of sad to think people are running out of formula,” he said.
To keep the effort going, the county is now taking donations at St. Edward Catholic Church in Keizer, 5303 River Rd. N.E., on Mondays and Tuesdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. People can donate unopened food, cleaning supplies, diapers, toiletries, homemade cloth masks, new digital thermometers and pet food. More information is available on the county website.
Contact reporter Rachel Alexander at [email protected] or 503-575-1241.
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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.