Waco food pantries held pivotal roles in ensuring the health of struggling families during the COVID-19 pandemic

Story by Anna Tabet and Sommer Stanley

Photo Courtesy of Chiquita Grice

Parishioners at Church of the Open Door prepare to provide clients with food supplies.

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of negativity and pain in the Waco community and around the world. Thankfully, there have been many organizations that have risen to the challenge in order to help struggling individuals and families. 

In Waco, many food pantries have been providing assistance to those who are experiencing food insecurity. 

In order to help feed people during the pandemic while still following social distancing, many food pantries have had to adjust their methods.

Caritas is one of the most prominent food pantries in Waco. Due to the successful changes the nonprofit has implemented, it has been able to continue to provide food for the community.

“It has dramatically changed the way we do business. Typically, before this, we opened our food pantry and had people come into the pantry and select the food items they are needing,” Caritas executive director Buddy Edwards said. “Now we have created a drive-thru operation. So individuals who need food simply bring their vehicle and we have an arranged pathway for them to come and at that point, we are able to put food into their vehicle.”

Shepherd’s Heart Food Pantry has had to implement similar changes. While their pantry was originally set up with a store-like structure, they now are adjusting their food distribution process to include the packaging of items inside their building to be delivered to the trunks of visitors with no contact. 

In addition to enforcing a no-contact rule, food pantries are taking concrete steps to ensure the safety of their volunteers and visitors. These steps include wearing rubber gloves, face masks, and upholding the recommended 6 feet of social distance at all times.  

With the changes food pantries have made, they have been able to serve many different demographics.

“We also serve in this arrangement homeless individuals who walk up to our facility still using social distancing,” Edwards said. “We already have pre-packaged and bagged food items that are available to them as well. We’ve also been able to serve people quicker and we’re not turning anyone away.”

Alternately, on top of their consistent commitment to the food pantry, Shepherd’s Heart sets aside time to deliver groceries to roughly 730 seniors in the Waco area.

Church of the Open Door’s food pantry has experienced a shift in their clientele as well. Not only have they noticed an increase in their client-base, but their outreach has grown to encompass those outside of the Waco area. 

Due to this increase in visitors to Waco food pantries, many have faced unforeseen challenges. 

“We don’t know what to expect from day-to-day,” said Robert Gager, Executive Director of Shepherd’s Heart. “We just keep getting all of these surprises. Sometimes they’re good surprises; other times, I don’t want to say that they’re bad surprises, but they are challenging.” 

Specifically, Shepherd’s Heart requires volunteers to help feed those in need; but has struggled to do so recently due to the 

intensity of the pandemic. 

“The pandemic scared away most of our volunteers,” Gager said. “We do most of our work with volunteers and they all disappeared. So we’re now dealing with new volunteers each day and we never really know who’s going to show up.”

Most nonprofits rely on donations to keep their services running. Thirty-six percent of Shepherd’s Heart’s income was attained through their resale store that was forced to close down because of the pandemic. This has left them with a need to depend on alternate sources to maintain their growing base of visitors. 

Caritas has also had to shut down stores and other revenue sources.

“The biggest challenge has been the impact on our regular operations, which include thrift stores, and those two stores are closed,” Edwards said. “We also have a Gifts-In-Kind program that’s done in conjunction with the Walmart return center, which is located here in Waco. Those programs are revenue streams for us and we’ve had to shut them all down.”

Although Caritas has endured challenges during the pandemic, Edwards commended the community’s response.

“Our regular sources of income have been interrupted and we’ve had to rely on donations from the community,” Edwards said. “We’ve had a very good response from the community, so that’s been most helpful. That has been very impactful to us in terms of being certain that we have funding to operate our programs.”

During this time, most food pantries are relying heavily on donations. Because of this, these organizations urge community members with the capacity to give to research local opportunities for them to do so.

“Financial donations are the number one thing people can help us with at this time,” Edwards said. “We’re working with a couple of local television stations and they’re doing online fundraisers for food pantries and that’s been responded to very nicely. People have sent in donations through the mail and we have through our website a donate button and people have responded nicely through that. We have historically used volunteers but because of our concern about exposing volunteers, we don’t currently use volunteers; it’s all staff based.”

While the food pantries as a whole have been facing challenges, individual staff members have found their own ways to stay mentally strong. 

Church of the Open Door’s leader of the food pantry ministry, Chiquita Grice, shared her community’s reliance on prayer at all times, but especially recently.

“We do lots of prayer,” Grice said. “We always have prayer before we start food pantries. We share stories and uphold our little community in our ministry.”

Gager has similarly found comfort in religion during this taxing time.

“I know I’m not in charge; God’s in charge,” Gager said. “So I’m just following what’s in front of me. There may be challenges, but they always work out.”

Edwards expressed that he and his staff have found motivation in bringing the community together.

“We value the work we’re doing and we are strongly committed to the community for this type of service,” Edwards said. “We’ve also tried to do some things to brighten people’s day. Like today, we brought in barbecue sandwiches for everyone. The Caritas board of directors arranged to do sort of a drive-by parade today and they were honking and yelling at everyone how much they appreciate everything we’re doing. There’s a sense by our staff that they are appreciated and so I think all of that helps support them during these difficult times.”

As food pantries figure out how to adjust their own daily operations, they are simultaneously providing resources to help the community persevere. 

“For all nonprofit organizations and food pantries that are doing this kind of work, we just want to thank our respective communities for the support that they’re providing because absolutely we could not do it without it,” Edwards said. “Their support is instrumental, crucial for us in order to be able to carry on.”