Steve Greenough and Carla Formel stood behind a table employed for social distancing, each wearing face masks, as they waited for people to arrive for lunch at Loaves and Fishes in Columbus on Monday.
The two members of Annunciation Catholic Church had filled another tabletop, just outside the doorway, with sack lunches consisting of a canned heat-and-serve meal, a granola bar and bottled water.
Business turned out to be slow, though. By the end of the free meal service, they had distributed about only 35 sack lunches at a facility that, during normal times, would feed 70 to 150 people with hot, dine-in meals.
It could be that those who regularly arrive for daily lunches assumed the program had been shut down due to the state shelter in place order, which took effect Friday. Perhaps, they, too, are honoring that order. Maybe they stocked up on food in advance.
Whatever the motivations, charities and nonprofits throughout the Golden Triangle say demand has been low.
“I don’t know what to tell you. It’s been pretty slow, really,” said Nancy Guerry, director of Helping Hands Ministry, one of 17 nonprofits supported by the United Way of Lowndes County. Helping Hands provides mortgage/rent, prescription medicines, utility and food assistance and disaster assistance for those in need.
“We’re not getting a lot of people coming to us for assistance, but we are getting a lot of calls,” said Renee Sanders, director for the United Way of Lowndes County.
Just as the full effect of the COVID-19 coronavirus has yet to arrive here, so yet has the demand for nonprofit assistance.
But it’s coming, they know, and nonprofits have been using the last couple of weeks to prepare for the inevitable rush from those needing help.
“I think when people get that last paycheck, when they realize that’s going to be the last paycheck they get for a while, that’s when we’ll get hit,” said Guerry. “It’s coming.”
Candy Crecink, director for United Way of North Central Mississippi in Starkville, said her organization, which supports 15 food pantries and meal service programs, is not being lulled into a false sense of complacency. She knows what lies ahead, she said.
“From where I’m sitting everybody is still in the numb stage,” Crecink said. “But we know the demand is going to be more and more apparent in the coming days and weeks. So we’re not sitting back and saying, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ We’re preparing. We want to be able to provide as much assistance as we can when that time comes.”
During the lull, Sanders said she’s been busy with paperwork.
“I’ve been applying for all the federal options that are going to be available to nonprofits out there,” she said. “We need to have access to those programs as soon as the money is available, so I’m busy trying to get ahead of all that.”
Sanders said another challenge is having enough volunteers who are both ready and equipped to serve once the demand begins to increase.
“So many of our volunteers are senior citizens,” Sanders said. “They are in the most vulnerable group and we don’t want them to be exposed to unnecessary risks. So we definitely need volunteers.
“We are also in need of face masks for our volunteers,” she added. “Right now, there just aren’t any to be had. So we’re looking for volunteers who can provide their own masks.”
Ann Sparkman, co-president for Loaves and Fishes, said a few of 30 churches and organizations who provide meals on a regular basis have had to drop out.
“Our groups had always provided and served hot meals, which we obviously can’t do now,” she said. “The sack lunches can’t be sandwiches or meals they put together. They have to be pre-packaged meals to meet the health standards required. Some aren’t able to do that.”
Annunciation Church, which normally provides meal service twice a month, has stepped in and will provide four meals now. Sparkman said other groups are also stepping in to serve when others drop out.
Crecink said food drive efforts in Starkville are already underway.
“Starkville Academy held a food drive last week,” she said. “They collected 1,800 food items and brought them to us (Tuesday). We’ll start the distribution on Monday and Tuesday, calling all our food programs and pantries and scheduling an appointment for them to come and add to their stock.”
Crecink said her organization plans to hold food drives that will allow them to distribute food to those groups every two weeks.
Because the needs will go beyond food, both United Ways have established programs to help people with cash assistance for rent/utilities and other needs.
Sanders said donations to support people in Lowndes and Noxubee counties can be made by visiting the organization’s website (www.uwlc-ms.org) or by visiting its Facebook page.
Crecink said donors should visit starkvilleunited.com and click on the “contribute” tab to make donations for those in Oktibbeha, Webster, Winston and Choctaw counties.
Even under normal circumstances, life can be problematic for those nonprofits serve. COVID-19 is sure to present unique and greater needs.
“I don’t look at them as a problem,” Crecink said. “Problems, you can put aside. What we are facing are challenges and challenges have to be met and overcome. It’s neighbors helping neighbors. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.