Increased need puts extra demands on CORA during COVID-19 pandemic

BY BILL HORNER III, News + Record Staff
Posted 3/20/20

When traffic at CORA jumped this week — double or even triple the normal numbers of individuals and families seeking food assistance — Melissa Driver Beard, the non-profit food pantry’s executive director, found herself in dire need of healthy volunteers to help assemble and hand out bags of food.

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Increased need puts extra demands on CORA during COVID-19 pandemic

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Posted

PITTSBORO — When traffic at CORA jumped last week — double or even triple the normal numbers of individuals and families seeking food assistance — Melissa Driver Beard, the non-profit food pantry’s executive director, found herself in dire need of healthy volunteers to help assemble and hand out bags of food.

And then they showed up.

CORA’s facility on Camp Drive, not far from the Chatham Community Library in Pittsboro, was abuzz with activity last Thursday afternoon as Beard, staff members, volunteers — some of whom Beard hadn’t seen before, but was happy to — and those needing food helped, and were helped, as the impact of the COVID-19 virus began to be felt in kitchens and pantries in homes around Chatham County.

Earlier, Beard had put the word out about needing volunteers — CORA still needs them and will continue to — and as the community responded, she took a moment to reflect and express her thanks.

“It’s funny,” she said during a brief break in her work. “Last week, I was so proud of myself for having the foresight on Monday or Tuesday to place an order for a month’s worth of food thinking, ‘Oh, I’m getting ahead of the game.’ And, you know, if there are shortages or if there are price increases, we’ll be ahead of that.”

But with the new reality of this pandemic, the best plans don’t always bear fruit.

“That food order was supposed to come in by Thursday,” Beard said, “and it’s still not here.”

With some other suppliers, she says: “Every day we’re told, ‘Tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.’”

CORA — Chatham Outreach Alliance, which provides food to individuals and families within the community who are in need from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays — does have food on hand, although canned protein (“we’re extremely low on canned tuna, canned chicken, salmon, beans, that sort of thing”) is in short supply.

In a normal week, CORA might serve the needs of 800 or so people. By last Friday, the number exceeded 1,800 for the week. Another 430 individuals came for food on Monday.

Beard said already-planned food drives, extra donations from individuals and groups and newly-planned drives were huge helps in keeping CORA’s stores supplied. And food from regular CORA suppliers such as the N.C. Food Bank and Aldi?

CORA learned Monday it wouldn’t get any shipments of food at all this week.

“We’re relying heavily on donations of canned goods,” said Rebecca Hankins, CORA’s development and communications director. “The most important thing is to direct people to our website to get the latest updates, as things are changing very rapidly.”

For Chatham County residents in need, CORA provides a week’s worth of nutritionally-balanced food up to six times over a 12-month period. For non-Chatham residents, CORA can temporarily provide food while strategies for finding food closer to home are managed. The organization’s “Beyond Six” program provides a basic level of food support to help families navigate additional weeks of need.

Those needs are changing. The spread of the novel coronavirus and the workload of her staff means, too, that Beard is taking as many precautions as possible. A mobile food market planned for Siler City was canceled, and alternating Saturday distribution hours will probably be stopped as well. But because CORA is designated as a disaster relief agency, CORA will be handing out food “as long as we have food to hand out,” Beard said.

In doing so, they’re practicing “social distancing” as much as possible in CORA’s cramped facilities — including having clients stay at “curbside” and having volunteers hand bags of food to them.

“So, there are no clients coming in the pantry,” she said. “Given our space restrictions in the pantry, I’d love to be able to keep our volunteers farther apart from each other. But I can’t even really successfully do that. Everybody is here by choice. I’ve told my staff if they would rather work from home, they could, and right now some are working remotely.”

CORA’s employees will begin working in two teams in the coming week in an effort to provide some separation — “so that if one of us at work becomes sick, we wouldn’t all have to go into isolation,” Beard said — and volunteers will be able to work “off-hours” if they so choose.

Beard appreciates the extra help and says that need will continue.

“We do need volunteers,” she said. “We primarily are using volunteers to bag food. If you are worried about social distancing, we can arrange for people to come after hours. And, you know, we want people to be cautious. We want you to be safe. We want to respect people’s boundaries. And because of our building size, that’s hard for us to do.

“We’re just trying to get as much food pre-bagged as we can,” she said. “We’ve got things really well marked, and putting together a bag of food is a pretty easy process. We need people who we’re calling ‘runners’ — so that you would basically just take bags of food out front. And there’s very limited social contact with that. We need people who are willing to be exposed to the public that will bag take bags of food to cars. And we need Spanish translators.”

But right now, the biggest need, Beard says, is food: proteins, canned fruits, vegetables, cereal bars, crackers, apples, oranges.

“And oddly enough, we need paper grocery bags, because getting those in is proving to be difficult,” she said.

And for those who can, CORA needs financial donations, which can be made at corafoodpantry.org.

As Beard works to keep her staff and volunteers healthy, and CORA’s food supplies stocked, she says a word of thanks about the community’s support.

“Really, I mean, the community has rallied around us and is seeing the value in what we’re providing,” she said. “And we’re so, so thankful for that. I think it speaks volumes about just how entrenched CORA is in the community and the fact that we’ve been here for 30 years.

“You know, we’re seeing people who are coming because suddenly they’ve lost their job as a waitress or a waiter or in some other business, or they’ve had to quit because their kids are out of school, or who knows what may be the case…” Beard said.

“And we may be dealing with that for months. So, we’re just trying to plan for every possible scenario. It’s really hard to look into that crystal ball and see what’s going to happen, but we’re trying to do that and just so thankful for everybody that’s helping us along the way.”

Publisher/Editor Bill Horner III can be reached at bhorner3@chathamnr.com.

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