Valentino Benitez, left, and his mother, Maria Benitez, receive food at Omaha’s Juan Diego Center food pantry Nov. 11, assisted by Mikaela Schuele, director of emergency and supportive food services with Catholic Charities. The food pantry is just one of several in the archdiocese seeing large increases in client traffic due to the coronavirus pandemic. MIKE MAY/STAFF

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Demand climbing at area food pantries due to pandemic

Food pantries around the archdiocese are experiencing a significant increase in demand this year as the coronavirus takes its toll on many people’s incomes, resulting in an increase in food insecurity, including among people who have never risked going hungry before.

Marty Smith, executive director of the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Omaha, said demand at the organization’s food pantry in downtown Omaha has doubled over the course of the pandemic and continues to grow, with traffic nearing 250 families each day the pantry is open.

“We do see a lot more new faces and shinier cars,” Smith said. “These are people who are new to the need for food.”

“Food is expensive when your funds are limited, especially fresh produce, meat and dairy, so it’s hard initially if you’ve never been in that spot before,” he said.

To meet the increased demand, Smith relies on the continued generosity of organizations, individual donors and about 30 recent parish food drives.

“We have been blessed with very consistent donations,” he said. “It has reassured us that people are really willing to help provide food. … But the need is enormous.”

“Their generosity, both in terms of money donations … and the number of people who just show up with food has been delightful.”

The St. Vincent de Paul pantry, which had been a “choice pantry,” allowing clients to select their own items inside its facility, has been operating as a drive-thru operation since pandemic restrictions were put in place last spring, he said.

Ross Snyder, a member of Holy Name Parish and a volunteer with the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s food pantry, both in Omaha, loads food into a client’s car during drive-up service Nov. 12. MIKE MAY/STAFF

Pre-bagged items include non-perishables such as beans, pasta, bread and peanut butter, Smith said, as well as produce and milk courtesy of Catholic Charities and meat from FoodBank for the Heartland.

The pantry is open two days a week and clients are encouraged to visit once every other week, “but we don’t keep track,” Smith said.

‘IT’S HEARTBREAKING’

Also seeing a significant increase in demand for food are the St. Martin de Porres Center in north Omaha, and especially the Juan Diego Center in south Omaha, said Mikaela Schuele, director of emergency and supportive food services with Catholic Charities.

Before the pandemic, the organization’s two pantries served about 3,500 people per month. In September, that number was approximately 17,400, Schuele said.

“It’s pretty remarkable, it’s heartbreaking,” she said, “but it’s why we’re here.”

One reason Schuele cites for the increase was the discontinuation in Nebraska of extra Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits due to the pandemic. Although the state recently reinstated the extra benefits, demand at the pantries continues at a high level, she said.

To meet the increased demand, Catholic Charities expanded its outreach to food sources, Schuele said. “What used to sustain us for an entire month is now sustaining us about two days.”

One such source is the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Family Food Box program, which supplies produce, meat and dairy products that farmers have trouble delivering to market due to coronavirus-related supply chain problems.

Food also is received through parish food drives as well as FoodBank for the Heartland, Tyson Foods, Lincoln Premium Poultry, Dot Foods, Highland Dairy, Cash-Wa Distributing and Saving Grace, an organization that gathers food from grocers that otherwise might be discarded.

And Catholic Charities will benefit from a special collection during Masses this weekend around the archdiocese.

The pandemic also required the St. Martin de Porres and Juan Diego Center pantries to move to outdoor distribution, Schuele said, where, on a walk-up basis, clients can receive pre-packaged food.

The pantries also partner with other charitable organizations to provide food deliveries to people referred through the Douglas County Health Department who are quarantining due to the coronavirus.

Despite the pandemic, Schuele said, the Juan Diego food pantry held its annual “turkey day,” Nov. 23, where the first 250 people received a turkey and other items for a Thanksgiving Day meal, as well as produce and milk.

Christine Olvera, left, pantry outreach assistant, and Mikaela Schuele, director of emergency and supportive food services with Catholic Charities, prepare food bags for distribution at Omaha’s Juan Diego Center Nov. 11. MIKE MAY/STAFF

Schuele said Catholic Charities makes every effort to dignify and personalize their process.

“There are names behind (our) numbers,” she said. “We try to get to know our families … and we want to let them know we’re there for them and love them … and they mean something to us. They have a story and we respect that story.”

UPTICK JUST BEGINNING

The St. Joseph Parish food pantry in Walthill, which serves the Native American population, is just beginning to see an uptick in demand, said Benedictine Sister Deana Case, president of the parish’s food pantry and thrift store.

The Omaha and Winnebago tribes have been providing for the needs of their people, she said, but as their grant monies have run out, and as people have spent their pandemic stimulus money, more people are beginning to seek food assistance.

After being closed for several months to protect their elderly volunteers from coronavirus exposure, the pantry reopened in October with revised procedures, Sister Deana said. Clients now call in their food needs and a box is prepared and given to them at the pantry door.

The pantry typically serves up to 60 families per month, and families may range from six to nearly a dozen people, Sister Deana said.

“We’re an emergency food pantry, so … we have to take each case separately,” she said. “We’ve found that people run out of money toward the end of the month, and they don’t have anything left of their paychecks or their subsidies.”

The St. Joseph food pantry relies on donations from Catholic Charities, private groups, several Omaha parishes and occasional donations from the Costco chicken plant in Fremont.

In addition to food donations, Sister Deana said, the pantry also welcomes new volunteers who want to help out.

COMMUNITY OUTPOURING

In Columbus, the Simon House food pantry also is seeing increased demand, said Director Lucy Lutjelusche, up by about 50% over the last seven months.

“What I did see right away was that when children had to stay home, the parent had to stay home also,” she said, resulting in a loss of income.

Simon House now provides both drive-up and delivery services, due to pandemic concerns, she said. Items are pre-packaged, including canned goods, meat, paper goods and hygiene products.

The pantry is blessed to have so many groups, churches and individuals that supply food and other donations, Lutjelusche said.

“During the pandemic, people have been sending checks. I could not believe the outpouring of our community, as well as people who used to live in Columbus.

“I do want to say how grateful we are, because without everyone, we would not be where we are. We’re grateful for their prayers, their past donations and their ongoing donations.

Lutjelusche also thanks the St. Vincent de Paul Society conferences at Columbus parishes St. Isidore, St. Anthony and St. Bonaventure for their generosity, not only to the food pantry, but for their financial support for people in need.

“They were very crucial in helping us,” she said. “If it weren’t for them, people and families would have been out on the street.”

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WANT TO HELP?

All area pantries are seeking cash donations plus food such as canned fruits and vegetables, cereal, rice, pasta, bread and peanut butter. Some seek hygiene products such as soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and other products such as diapers, paper towels, toilet paper and paper bags. And some seek new or like-new coats, hats and gloves. Call for details and specific needs.

The following listing includes places and times to make food and other donations:

St. Martin de Porres Food Pantry

2111 Emmet St.

Omaha, NE 68110

402-453-6363

Monday and Friday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Tuesday 2-4 p.m.

Juan Diego Center Food Pantry

5211 S. 31st St.

Omaha, NE 68107

402-731-5413

Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; Wednesday, 3 to 6 p.m.

St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry

2101 Leavenworth St.

Omaha, NE 68102

402-341-1688

Tuesday and Thursday, 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

St. Joseph Parish

501 Main St.

Walthill, NE 68067

402-878-2402

Last two weeks of the month; Tuesday and Thursday, 3 to 5 p.m.

Simon House

1853 10th Ave.

Columbus, NE 68601

402-564-8444

Monday thru Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturday by appointment