Longtime food pantry converts to drive-thru in pandemic

By Jessica Brodie

COLUMBIA—A food pantry serving the community for decades has become a lifeline for many during the pandemic.

Since 1981, Virginia Wingard Memorial United Methodist Church has been supplying food and other assistance to its neighbors. But when COVID-19 hit this spring, and unemployment and furlough rates began to rise, the need became tremendous.

Even though the pandemic brought health and safety risks, and many of its regular volunteers needed to quarantine, many others began to step up to help. They converted the normal walk-in pantry to a drive-thru-style operation.

Now, twice a week wearing masks and gloves, church volunteers gather to give out food, as well as clothing, children’s books and prayer assistance, to the hundreds of families seeking help from this house of God.

“There is a lot of need,” said Neal Asman, who has been coordinating the pantry since January. “We’ve grown substantially in the number of households we help over the months of the pandemic—people previously not income-eligible now are. Many lost jobs or have been furloughed because of COVID, or some, who had multiple jobs just to have enough, lost one of their many jobs.”

The day the Advocate visited, they’d just had their busiest day of the season and were scrambling to assemble bags for the many cars already beginning to line up outside their doors even before they opened for service.

“It has been astounding the number of people served,” said the Rev. Beth Faulk, who came in July and said she was overcome to see the magnitude of the operation. “I’m amazed what’s going on here, how God has provided.”

Asman said Virginia Wingard Memorial UMC is blessed to have a long parking lot and a covered driveway, so cars are able to pull into the church off the busy street, line up, then make their way to the pickup station.

There, volunteers greet them with paperwork—they are asked to come just once a month, though the church will help more often if they are in need—and the food. After showing identification, they receive a large grocery bag of nonperishable staples; a bag of cheese, milk, meat or other refrigerated items; a loaf of bread; and a bag of produce.

Next, they pull past a colorful mailbox where they can leave prayer requests, and at the end, on days when weather permits, there is a clothing station, where people can pick out items they need.

Currently, Asman said, they have about a $25,000 budget; half comes from organized funding sources, grants and community foundations, and the other half from church members and other individuals.

Volunteer Ann Ozburn, assembling bags in the back the day the Advocate visited, said she loves the opportunity to help her church in this way.

“I feel like we’re doing something great for our community,” Ozburn said.

Jill Aderholdt, who was working directly with the clients the day the Advocate visited, said she is touched by the gratitude and open spirit of the people they serve.

“They’re really thankful for what they get, say things like, ‘We couldn’t make it without you,’” Aderholdt said.

Some even hand a dollar or two to contribute in thanks for what they receive.

Micheline Bell, volunteer, said she appreciates how the church has come together to help in spite of fears about COVID—though she definitely misses the hugs the clients often share in appreciation and looks forward to the day when that can return.

“We’ve really stepped up, stepped out and had some fun,” Bell said. “We give the love Jesus told us we need to have for the people. That says a lot.”

Asman said he is standing on the shoulders of the leaders who came before, carrying on a line of people who help the community in a way they can. Before the pandemic, they operated three days a week, and clients would walk in to receive food, but they streamlined the operation to a two-day drive-thru.

On Tuesday morning, three volunteers go to the Harvest Hope warehouse with a big truck to get the food supplied by the United States Department of Agriculture. Then Tuesday night, after their first day of food distribution, they shop for anything else needed. They also maintain a supply of food not USDA-approved for those clients who do not qualify for assistance but who are still in need.

He lifted up several longtime volunteers, including Gary Tinsley and Ted and Marietta Jenkinson, for their critical help.

While the pandemic could have been an obstacle, Asman said, “We’ve not had to skip a beat or a day when clients could receive food.”

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