Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion
                                John Webster and Duane Jennings with the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank unload a truck at the food bank just outside of Soldotna on Tuesday.

Jeff Helminiak / Peninsula Clarion John Webster and Duane Jennings with the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank unload a truck at the food bank just outside of Soldotna on Tuesday.

Food Bank sees major uptick in demand

Nonprofit’s biggest fundraiser of year undergoes changes due to pandemic

The executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank said his organization is scrambling to keep up with all the changes brought by the new coronavirus pandemic.

“We’ve had patterns before but they’re all broken,” said Greg Meyer, executive director of the nonprofit. “It’s hard to tell what is a pattern now.”

Among the disruptions Meyer listed are an increase in demand, a changed volunteer base, need to reconfigure the building and the need to change the biggest fundraiser of the year into a cyber event.

In February, before the pandemic had spread widely in the United States, Meyer said the food bank distributed 60,000 pounds of food.

In June, Meyer said the food bank was up to 130,000 pounds of food. In addition, in June the food bank also distributed 60,000 pounds of produce and 40,000 pounds of milk.

The produce and milk were part of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The USDA purchases produce and milk from farmers and distributes it to those in need.

“July is going to be even higher,” Meyer said. “We were seeing things ramp up last week when unemployment benefits changed. We saw more people come through because of that.”

The $600-per-week jobless aid benefit expired Friday and lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have yet to come to an agreement on a new package.

Meyer said he is concerned about demand continuing to rise on the Kenai Peninsula because the tourist industry took such a hit this summer.

“People are struggling already,” Meyer said. “People didn’t get back to work right away or haven’t been back to work at all, based on conversations I have with people who come in here.

“There’s a lot of concern in the community, but we’re going to do whatever we can to support our neighbors.”

Meyer also is concerned that the benefits the food bank gets from the coronavirus relief bill are set to end Dec. 30.

“I know it’s going to be a rough winter,” he said. “Whenever possible, we’ve been taking the opportunity to store up staples and dry food.”

When the pandemic started, Meyer said the food bank had just one large truck that didn’t work well. The food bank now has two 26-foot box trucks. One was donated by the Food Bank of Alaska and the other came in mid-May thanks to a batch of donations from community members and businesses.

With so much food to move, the trucks have been vital.

“The unusual thing for us, what’s so unexpected, is that we’re running to Anchorage a lot,” Meyer said. “It used to be it was less than 10 times a year we were going to Anchorage, now we’re doing it twice a week.”

In addition, Meyer said the food bank is delivering a lot more food around the Kenai Peninsula.

Meyer said that’s for two reasons. First, food from the USDA comes on large pallets, so it’s easier to get food to outlying areas of the peninsula on the food bank’s big trucks. Second, many of the volunteers in the outlying areas who used to come pick up food are not volunteering anymore to protect themselves and their families from the new coronavirus.

According to Meyer, volunteers tend to be older. He said the food bank had 80 to 90 volunteers a month in January and February, but is down to 20 volunteers now.

The executive director said his 11 staff members are working very hard.

“A lot are working seven days a week,” Meyer said. “It takes Saturday and Sunday to regroup for Monday.”

In the midst of moving so much food, Meyer said staff also is trying to reconfigure the building to suit specific challenges brought by the new coronavirus pandemic.

The public is not currently allowed in the building’s diner. Because people like socializing with their meals, the food bank has spread out picnic tables under trees outside.

That won’t work in the winter, when Meyer said many use their meal not only to eat, but also to warm up, socialize and charge cellphones.

“We need a bigger space so we can have people come in and still be within safe distances,” he said.

Meyer said the adjustment of the building has been made more difficult by delayed delivery of parts because of the pandemic. For instance, the food bank is trying to get a new power pallet jack, but it won’t be here until December.

The executive director said the community can help in a number of ways. Donating money is very beneficial, because due to USDA programs Meyer said the food bank can make a dollar worth three or four times what it is in the store.

“At the same time, we don’t want to do anything to take away support for local businesses,” Meyer said.

He said single-serve items that are easy to prepare, like cups of noodles or cans of chili or stew, are a great donation item. The food bank also is trying to build up its supply of canned meats for the winter.

The food bank also had to cancel its annual Soup Supper and Auction, which was scheduled for Aug. 22. The 24th version of the event will now be a Cyber Soup Supper. Tickets are available for $50 on kpfoodbank.org. Each ticket still comes with a bowl handcrafted by a local potter.

Tickets and bowls also are available Tuesdays from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Farmers Fresh Market just outside the food bank.

The food bank also is holding auctions for two round-trip tickets to anywhere Alaska Airlines flies and for a Polaris side by side worth about $15,000. The drawings will be held Aug. 22 and tickets can be purchased on the food bank’s website.

The food bank also can be reached at 907-262-3111.

Stephen Lamm, the chef with Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, cooks at the Farmers Fresh Market at the food bank just outside of Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. As part of National Farmers Market Week, Lamm was showcasing different ways the fresh produce at farmers markets can be utilized. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

Stephen Lamm, the chef with Kenai Peninsula Food Bank, cooks at the Farmers Fresh Market at the food bank just outside of Soldotna, Alaska, on Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020. As part of National Farmers Market Week, Lamm was showcasing different ways the fresh produce at farmers markets can be utilized. (Photo by Jeff Helminiak/Peninsula Clarion)

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