At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, a line of cars the length of the parking lot could be seen at Soldotna United Methodist Church — but not for Wednesday Mass. The drivers were picking up bags of shelf-stable food from the Soldotna food pantry in order to keep their families fed for the week.
Thanks to a partnership between the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank and the cities of Kenai and Soldotna, residents of those two communities will have access to these weekly food bags, which will be offered at a number of locations, for the remainder of the year.
Greg Meyer, executive director of the food bank, told the Clarion Wednesday that Kenai’s program has been running for about six weeks, while Soldotna’s program is only in its second week. The City of Kenai gave the food bank $65,000 in early September as part of its CARES Act grant program, which is being used to purchase and distribute 175 bags of food per week at the Kenai Food Pantry, located at Kenai United Methodist Church.
Meyer said that it was originally 150 bags per week that were distributed, but the demand was high enough that they decided after a few weeks to increase the total number.
On Sept. 23, the City of Soldotna approved a similar grant in the amount of $250,000. Of that, $150,000 was meant specifically for purchasing the bags — which contain approximately $20 worth of food — while the other $100,000 is meant to assist the food bank in its general operations.
Soldotna’s CARES grant paid for 500 bags per week until the end of the year, and in its first week all 500 of the bags were claimed. Last Thursday — which is the last day of the week to pick up bags in Soldotna — the food bags distributed at Hospice of the Central Peninsula were all claimed by noon. Suzie Smalley, one of the volunteers for the program, had a few extra bags with her on Thursday that she was delivering to her neighbors in need.
Meyer said that the food bank is purchasing the food from as many local vendors as possible, such as Peterkin Distributors and M&M Market in Nikiski. Local farmers have also donated large amounts of produce as the harvest season winds down, which means that the bags always include some fresh fruits or veggies.
Cosette Kilfoyle, who is the director of the Soldotna Food Pantry, said Wednesday that the contents of the bags change every week, but always include at least a loaf of bread and milk, either shelf-stable or by the gallon. This week the bags consisted of Cheerios, ravioli, canned peas, canned chicken, diced tomatoes, fruit pouches, macaroni and cheese and instant pudding as well as the bread and milk.
There is no application to fill out in order to receive food, and the only question asked of the clients who come for the food bags in Soldotna is “How many are in your family?”
The bags are each meant to feed two people for the week, Kilfoyle said, so larger families get multiple bags.
Kenai’s grant program does require the volunteers to ask if the clients are residents of the city, Kilfoyle said, but there are no limits on how many weeks families can pick up food.
Meyer said that the bags are organized on Saturday and Sunday. While the sorting is still an all-day effort, the food bank has had a high number of volunteers to help with that process.
“This program hit at a good time,” Meyer said. “People want to do something. They want to get out and help. And this is a good way to do that, since it’s on the weekends and people are spaced safely in a warehouse setting. We’ve even got someone whose job is to break down the boxes all day.”
Kilfoyle, who has had experience running the food pantry in non-pandemic times, said the clientele they’ve seen this summer includes a lot of new faces.
“We’ve definitely seen a change,” Kilfoyle said. “New people we haven’t seen before, and people we hadn’t seen in years that have had to come back.”
Kilfoyle said that she has seen the number of clients fluctuate based on whatever forms of financial assistance were made available from the federal government or elsewhere. When things like the one-time $1,200 stimulus, additional unemployment insurance or extended SNAP benefits rolled out, demand at the food pantry would dip temporarily, then go back to expected levels as the various forms of relief ran out.
“Food pantries are needed in this area,” Kilfoyle said. “This is helping us conserve our funding until January, and of course there is an increased need with the pandemic.
Meyer said that the coordination between the food bank, local churches, municipalities and other organizations to distribute the food bags is exactly what the community needs at this time.
“It’s been the coolest thing to see,” Meyer said. “The Food Bank is operating seven days a week now and we’ve got great partners who have really got this thing down.”
Soldotna Food Distribution: Monday from 4-6 p.m. at Christ Lutheran Church, 128 N. Soldotna Ave.
Wednesday from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at Soldotna United Methodist Church, 158 S. Binkley St.
Thursday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. at Hospice of the Central Peninsula, 35911 Kenai Spur Highway