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Capital Region Food Pantries Call For Additional Aid During Pandemic

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Jesse King
St. Vincent De Paul's food pantry is open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Thanksgiving is typically a busy time for food pantries, both in terms of donations and use. But as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, Capital Region food pantries are calling on lawmakers for extra assistance. 

Charities with the Hunger Action Network of New York State gathered at Albany’s St. Vincent De Paul Parish Monday to highlight a surge in food insecurity across the region.

food pantry
Credit Jesse King / WAMC
Natasha Pernicka says 50 percent of pantries with Food Pantries For the Capital District have seen a rise in use.

Natasha Pernicka, executive director of Food Pantries for the Capital District, says the network serves over 65,000 people in a normal year. But when the pandemic first shut down the economy in March, she says its food access referral line saw a 1,000 percent increase in calls. Throughout the year, 50 percent of its pantries have seen a rise in use.

“Though we have come through this stronger, thanks to the generosity of volunteers and donors, the resources needed to continue to provide food resources and access are much more than what we have pieced together at this point," Pernicka explains. 

Pernicka notes it’s not just food that pantries need more of. It’s also supplies, such as shelving, refrigeration, and vehicles. Tatianna Moragne manages the Troy Larger Pantry at Oakwood Community Center. She says the small, Saturday-morning effort turned into a full-blown delivery service during the pandemic.

“Many of our folks are seniors, maybe they’re disabled...And so in addition to having more people show up Saturday morning needing food, we’re also delivering food," says Moragne. "This has been a big strain on not only our resources, our volunteers, but also our budget. When we got our funding earlier in the year it was for what we normally serve, it was not for the amount of people we have now.”

Moragne and Pernicka say many of their new patrons are the recently unemployed – people who may be visiting food distribution events and pantries for the first time. Jenn Hyde, with Catholic Charities Tri-County Services, says she’s helped countless people apply for unemployment benefits, as well as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“We need the Nutrition Outreach and Education Program, known as NOEP, to be fully funded. There’s currently a 20 percent withhold," Hyde adds. "We’re still doing the work, [but] we’re not getting the funds for it.”

With COVID-19 cases on the rise and colder weather on the way, Hyde says Catholic Charities’ soup kitchens are increasingly offering meals to-go, and she encourages those using their pantries to call ahead for an appointment when they can.

Mark Emanation
Credit Jesse King / WAMC
Mark Emanation speaking at St. Vincent De Paul's food pantry on Monday.

Capital District Area Labor Federation Director Mark Emanatian says his biggest concern is December 26, when an estimated 12 million Americans are scheduled to lose their unemployment benefits, unless the federal government passes another round of pandemic relief. He believes the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 is only beginning, and encourages everyone to look out for their neighbors and help their local food pantry when they can.

“But I also think they have to raise their voices, and call their senators and congresspeople and say, ‘The federal government has to pass the HEROES Act, the CARES Act, another round of [pandemic relief].’ Extend unemployment benefits, expand SNAP, all those things," says Emanation. "And then the state government has to do the same thing. Everyone has to take it into their heart that ‘this is my responsibility, too.’”

The Hunger Action Network of New York State works with over 3,000 charities and agencies statewide. St. Vincent De Paul’s food pantry is open Mondays, Wednesday, and Thursdays from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m., while the Troy Larger Pantry is open Saturdays from 9 to 11 a.m.

You can check out the Food Pantries for the Capital District website for more information on pantries and distribution events across the region. 

Jesse King is the host of "51%" and a producer for WAMC's afternoon news programs. She also produces the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."