Food pantries have become a lifeline for millions of Americans since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and record-high inflation has only made things worse. Price hikes have increased the number of people that depend on food banks, and organizers are struggling to keep up with demand as the cost of food continues to rise.
According to a recent survey of the 200 food banks in the Feeding America network, 65% of banks reported seeing a greater demand for food assistance in March 2021 compared to the previous month, with an average increase of 15% more people. Just 30% of food banks said they had served the same number of clients. Even nurses have had to depend on food assistance programs.
Donors and individuals are trying to fill in the gaps. That’s why nurse Stacy Mason is receiving so much attention. She recently created a food pantry at the ICU where she works to help her colleagues find what they need for free, including diapers, sanitary wipes, and other sundries. Nurses are encouraged to take what they need and leave whatever they don’t.
“Now that summer has come, we’re seeing some fresh produce come in, items grown in people’s gardens, and that’s really neat,” Mason said.
“There are plenty of people who come through and take advantage of the pantry who are now in single-income families because of the virus,” she said. “There are also others who have lost a loved one and are facing different financial realities, and staffers who aren’t working the number of hours they once did.”
The project was an instant success with the other nurses.
“Some of the staff I work with in the ICU weren’t able to find things like wipes for their children, or they didn’t realize they needed toilet paper until they went to the cupboard and didn’t have any,” Mason explained.
“So many people have joined in with me,” she said. “They’re helping to donate items or keep the pantry running or stocked.” Even her two children have started volunteering. “I was out this morning to get stuff for the pantry, and even the kids are kind of into it!”
Many nurses are exhausted and burnt out from working during the pandemic, making it difficult for them to run errands in between shifts.
“You kind of heard staff talking amongst themselves, saying, ‘Hey can you pick that up’ and ‘I’ll run out and get it, and you’d find that item appear within a couple of days. And I thought if we could do that, amongst our ICU group, and we’re about 80 people or so, why couldn’t we do it on a larger scale?”
Before long, Mason decided to share it with the entire community at Mary Washington Healthcare in Virginia. The entire staff has come together to support the effort.
“I just set it up, and by word of mouth it kind of grew, and people would see me out stocking and say, ‘How can we contribute?’ It kind of blossomed from there,” she added.
The hospital acknowledged that the panty has had a dramatic effect on people’s lives amid the ongoing economic crisis.
“We know that many of our associates’ families are feeling the economic impacts of coronavirus,” Mary Washington Healthcare posted on Facebook, “and it’s nurses like Stacy Mason who demonstrate why 2020 is the Year of the Nurse.”
Mason hopes to keep the project going even after the pandemic subsides.
“Hopefully this will continue kind of indefinitely,” she said. “I think hunger is a very real thing. Everybody has the right to have food on their table. I think it’s just a way to help people meet that need, whether that’s acutely because of COVID, or an ongoing issue for people.”