WINCHESTER — Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the all-volunteer Highland Food Pantry in Winchester is busier than ever.
The pantry provides free food to local families in need during weekly distributions held on Tuesday mornings and evenings. The longer the pandemic goes on, General Manager Jenny Callis said, the more need the pantry sees.
"We had a truck yesterday and thought it would last three weeks," Callis said on Tuesday as she pointed to an empty space inside the pantry that had been stacked high when the day began.
In just two-and-a-half hours Tuesday morning, Highland Food Pantry handed out more than 200 boxes of free meat, produce, fresh fruit, vegetables, cereal, bread and other food items to 72 families. When the distribution ended, more than two dozen volunteers immediately began preparing for an equally busy giveaway from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday evening.
"We have a solid group of volunteers that has been faithful through all of this," said Vicki Laird, a board member at Highland Food Pantry. "A lot of us are older, but we also have high school kids that help. It's a lot of work."
Laird said the food distribution center at 446 Highland Ave., in the basement of Highland Memorial Presbyterian Church, has managed to keep its cupboards stocked throughout the pandemic even as local needs increased.
"The Blue Ridge Area Food Bank has been wonderful," she said about the Verona-based agency that helps feed low-income residents of the Shenandoah Valley.
Laird also praised local farmers and orchardists, as well as area businesses and private citizens, for making food and monetary donations to keep the pantry running smoothly.
Getting the food from the pantry to the people who need it is a labor-intensive effort that requires dozens of volunteers. Food is delivered to the facility on Sundays and Mondays, and given away by the boxfuls on Tuesday mornings and evenings. Since clients are no longer allowed inside the pantry because of the pandemic, items are carefully selected for them by volunteers and pushed up a conveyor belt from the church's basement to the street outside.
"It's stuff everybody can use," Laird said. "Chickens, hams, turkeys — we've been blessed to have plenty of food."
There are no eligibility requirements for the giveaways, Callis said. Anyone in need is welcome to pick up food from the pantry once a month during its weekly distributions.
COVID-19 has forced the pantry to find new ways to sustain itself. Laird said its biggest annual fundraiser, Men on a Mission, will not be held this November.
"We thought it prudent with everything going on to cancel the event," she said. "However, we're still taking donations."
Laird said what the pantry needs most right now is cash that can be used to buy food in bulk at a substantial discount from the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank network.
"We are fortunate to have such a generous community that steps up for the cause," she said.
"We've been able to stay in business, stay healthy and keep our clients healthy," Callis added. "That's a lot to be grateful for."
For more information or to make a donation to the Highland Food Pantry, visit its website at highlandpantrywinc.org.