When the Heart Ministry Center drive-thru food pantry opened at 10 a.m. Thursday, a line of cars stretched for five blocks from the nonprofit’s headquarters at 24th and Binney Streets in North Omaha.
By 11:30 a.m., so many more people were coming for groceries that despite an efficient assembly line system of handing them out, the line was still dozens of cars and three blocks long.
Meanwhile, when the clock struck noon downtown, 44 cars snaked through the former 11-Worth Cafe parking lot and neighborhood streets when the Together Omaha drive-thru pantry opened.
The lines did not abate until after the pantries closed Thursday afternoon.
They’re at least that long every day the pantries are open. Sometimes, they stretch more than eight blocks. Until it was reconfigured this week for safety, the Together line backed up on Leavenworth Street as far as an Interstate 480 ramp.
The need has not diminished since the economic effects of COVID-19 began hitting Nebraska in the spring, and it’s unlikely to go away soon, local hunger relief leaders said.
Nine months into the pandemic — with winter coming, coronavirus cases surging, the economy struggling, a partial federal eviction moratorium about to end and federal COVID-19 relief aid about to run out — people are flocking to local agencies for help with the most basic of life’s necessities.
“It’s been very heavy,” said Markus Hines, pantry coordinator at Heart Ministry. “There’s a lot of need.”
Dawn Taylor, a furloughed hotel food service worker picking up groceries at Heart Ministry with a friend on Thursday, put it this way: “There’s no jobs. When there’s no job, there’s no income. When there’s no income, you can’t buy food.”
How much need is there? About 200 cars a day go through the Heart Ministry pantry, many carrying people from more than one family. One Saturday in November, people in 336 cars received assistance there. Heart Ministry is on pace to distribute 6 million pounds of food this year — almost twice the 2019 total, said Chief Operating Officer Mark Dahir.
Together Omaha’s Nourish Food Choice pantry served about 43,000 people in all of 2019. The drive-thru pantry served 15,120 people this November alone, and Together expects to serve about 160,000 people for the year, said Craig Howell, the director of community engagement.
“The numbers are unprecedented,” he said.
Many people are experiencing food insecurity for the first time. While there’s a correlation between food insecurity and neighborhoods with high rates of COVID-19, “every ZIP code in metropolitan Omaha has come through Together in large numbers,” Howell said.
And it’s not just Omaha. The Food Bank for the Heartland, which supplies much of the food at Heart Ministry and Together, has seen a huge increase in need throughout the 77 counties in Nebraska and 16 counties in western Iowa that it serves.
That includes pantries in Elkhorn, Millard, Grand Island, Lexington and many other communities. Food bank CEO Brian Barks said a monthly pantry with a church group in Grand Island went from serving 400 households a month before COVID-19 to about 1,000 in May. The group, Fish and Loaves Ministry, is still serving about 800 households a month.
“We saw an immediate 40% increase in the need for food assistance when the pandemic began in March, and it has not let up,” Barks said. “Throughout these eight, nine, 10 months, however long it is, we have seen massive increases in our food distribution. ... And we anticipate it will continue, unfortunately, for some time to come.”
Before the pandemic, the food bank distributed enough food for about 2 million meals per month. During the pandemic, Barks said, it’s sending out about 2.8 million meals monthly.
If there is any good news, it’s that through the generosity of donors and federal relief, the food banks and such pantries as Heart Ministry and Together are able to give people healthy food. The boxes they’re putting in trunks and back seats include milk, cheese, fresh or frozen meat and plant-based proteins and fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as rice, pasta and canned goods.
How can people help? They can donate money to the Food Bank for the Heartland or agencies such as Heart Ministry and Together Omaha that serve the hungry as well as providing self-sufficiency services. The Food Bank needs volunteers to help sort and package the food, as do the nonprofits.
At Heart Ministry on Thursday, music played over a loudspeaker as the people in cars were greeted joyfully by a Sacred Heart Catholic Church parishioner, Joe Hauser, and Lou Parker, director of hospitality at Heart Ministry.
Workers from Heart Ministry’s Fresh Start program, which helps people with troubled lives get back on track to self-sufficiency, wheeled out carts laden with groceries. They put them in people’s cars; in a few cases, they squeezed the boxes between children in back seats. The people expressed gratitude.
Dawn Taylor and a disabled friend with her kept their chins up, but it’s not getting easier.
“I exhausted my unemployment last week,” she said. “I can’t apply again until next week. I was working a day here or a day there, but that’s gone away.”
Where would she be getting food if not at Heart Ministry?
“I’d be trying to find another pantry somewhere,” she said.