A line of cars snaked out of the Christ Lutheran Church parking lot at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
As the group of 10 or so volunteers from the church began to give out bags and boxes of food, with volunteers and those in the cars exchanging hearty cries of “Merry Christmas,” the line eventually decreased to a periodic trickle.
Kathy Carson, a member of Christ Lutheran, talked about the mixed feelings she had.
Carson has been involved in the Soldotna Food Pantry for the last seven years and is currently the co-coordinator there. The motivation behind the volunteer hours she spends is simple.
“There’s no reason any family should go hungry in the United States. Period,” Carson said. “I want to make sure families have good, nutritious food.”
Carson had reason to feel good Tuesday evening because members of the community had come together to distribute a lot of food for the holidays.
In the bags were spaghetti, beans, canned meats like chicken and tuna, applesauce, a loaf of bread and shelf-stable milk. In the boxes were apples, carrots, potatoes, cabbage, yogurt, sour cream, cheese, chicken and a gallon of milk.
The reason for Carson’s mixed feelings is the program that provides the boxes ends this week. The program that provides the bags will be significantly curtailed after next week.
“I have spent sleepless nights trying to figure out how we’re going to meet that need,” Carson said. “It’s very concerning.”
The boxes are part of the current round of the United States Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program. Greg Meyer, executive director at Kenai Peninsula Food Bank just outside of Soldotna, said the food bank will distribute 3,000 boxes for the program from Dec. 21 to Dec. 28. That will end the current round of the program.
The bags come from programs started by the cities of Kenai and Soldotna with coronavirus relief package funds. The food bank received $250,000 from Soldotna, then an additional $34,000, and $65,000 from Kenai, then an additional $12,000.
Starting in October, community volunteers were able to work with the food bank to distribute about 800 bags a week in Kenai and Soldotna. Meyer said that number has since grown to about 900.
Carson said for the current version of the program that ends next week, volunteers for the Soldotna program stock 700 bags on Sunday, then distribute them at Christ Lutheran Church starting at 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Soldotna United Methodist Church starting at 11 a.m. Wednesdays and Hospice of the Kenai Peninsula starting at noon Thursdays.
The Farmers to Families boxes also are given out at that time, if available.
Meyer said additional bags go to the senior centers and the Students in Transition program.
“This has been an incredible program,” Carson said. “It’s really a blessing to be a part of something to feed the community.
“Every person that comes in is saying, ‘Thank you. You don’t know how much this means to me.’”
After talking to so many in need of food, Carson said the cause of the uptick in demand is easy to pinpoint — the economic downturn caused by the new coronavirus pandemic.
Carson gave as an example a father of a family of six who had come in Tuesday. He had been working seven days a week. Now he was working only three.
“The increase in need is just incredible,” Carson said. “The stories we hear when people come in. They’ll be in tears they’re so thankful to get food. It’s amazing.”
Meyer said the food bag program is done in Kenai after next week. In Soldotna, the program will be cut to 400 bags a week for the month of January, then will end.
With no additional coronavirus relief measures signed into law at the federal level as of Wednesday, and the lag time of federal money making it to the local level, both Meyer and Carson are concerned about need being met in the community this winter.
“Just to have the program cut off in the middle of winter when people don’t have jobs is tough,” Carson said. “There’s not much happening yet for employment.”
Both Carson and Meyer draw some hope from the fact that all the food distributed in the food bags has been shelf stable.
“Our one hope is since we were able to do it weekly and provide bags of shelf-stable food, except for bread, people were able to put away something extra on the shelf,” Meyer said.
Carson said the Soldotna Food Pantry originally hoped to hold on to some shelf-stable food to distribute after the program ended, but the demand has been too great to do that.
Carson and Meyer also draw hope from the community in which they live.
“Though a lot of people are struggling, there is so much generosity in this community that it is overwhelming,” Meyer said.
He said Hutchings Auto Group and Peggy Mullen at River City Books have teamed up to purchase children’s books that the food bank can give out along with food. Safeway also has donated food cards that the food bank is giving to those with special dietary needs or families with an especially great need for food.
The food bank staff and volunteers continue to team up to distribute unprecedented amounts of food. The bank distributed about 232,00 pounds of food in November. In October, the bank did 267,000 pounds, the most ever since the nonprofit opened in 1988. The 232,000 pounds in November is about 2.5 times what the food bank did in November 2019.
For the holidays, Meyer said the food bank has been working with the pantries across the peninsula to provide Christmas boxes and turkeys. The food bank also will provide meals, which have to be picked up and eaten elsewhere, on New Year’s Eve for the first time.
For members of the community looking to help, Meyer and Carson said shelf-stable food donations are very useful right now.
Meyer also said cash donations are important. Transportation costs were a part of the food bag program, but they were not a part of the Farmers to Families program, meaning a number of costly trips to Anchorage.