Area food pantries face spike in demand

Courtesy photoWith the sanctuary closed to the public, volunteers have lined the pews of First Parish Church of Newbury with supplies for the food pantry.

NEWBURY — With more and more people experiencing layoffs and other hardships, food pantries across the state are seeing a surge in demand.

Jane Merrow, a founder and coordinator of the all-volunteer food pantry at First Parish Church of Newbury, said the pantry went from serving about 150 to 180 people a week in recent months to serving 317 people just last week.

“Because they now have no income, people who lived kind of week to week are really in dire straits,” she said of the new faces they are seeing.

At Our Neighbors’ Table, Executive Director Lyndsey Haight said the organization is dealing with “a tremendous increase in demand.”

Since March 16, Our Neighbors’ Table has registered 139 new households with 376 members and distributed 103,960 pounds of food, Haight wrote in an email. That’s a 17% increase compared to this time last year, she said.

“While handling this tremendous increase, we have had to completely alter our mode of operation — launching an online shopping platform so guests can order their groceries from home and pick them up via curbside pickup appointments,” Haight said. “We are doing all this on only 25% of our typical labor force as we have to drastically reduce volunteers on-site to allow for proper social distancing.”

As demand increases at the Newbury food pantry, supplies are beginning to diminish, Merrow said. She has weekly calls with the Greater Boston Food Bank, which is where the pantry gets most of its goods. In a recent phone call, Merrow was told that at least 50 pantries had closed in Massachusetts “due to staffing or fear, or people getting sick.”

The food pantry receives four deliveries a month and as of late, it has not received any pasta. Though she was hesitant to accept food donations at first for sanitation reasons, Merrow said she is now open to donations of cereal, pasta and other dry goods as long as they are not expired. To donate, call 978-358-1077 for details.

Merrow said the pantry also predominantly serves an older population, which is vulnerable and at a higher risk for contracting COVID-19. Many of those in need don’t have transportation, especially since the Council on Aging stopped its bus services. Last week, the food pantry delivered groceries to more than 100 places across Greater Newburyport, Merrow said.

“Because the numbers are now so high, we have now had to cut down on which communities we can serve, which is actually breaking my heart,” she said.

In more than four years of service, the food pantry has lived up to the idea that “anyone can come and we’ll feed them,” she said. As the food pantry tries to balance supply and demand, though, Merrow has had to ask some people to visit other facilities such as The Pettengill House in Salisbury and Our Neighbors’ Table in Amesbury.

“I’m thinking it may cut out 50 people and that’s still heartbreaking,” she said. “Some of these people have been coming for years.”

Despite some cutbacks, the food pantry continues to serve residents of Byfield, Newbury, Newburyport, Plum Island, Rowley and West Newbury. The pantry has also seen an increase in volunteers with some making masks, some making hand sanitizer, and others dealing with the organization and distribution of food.

Merrow is grateful the church established the food pantry when it did. In four years, Merrow said she feels like they have been preparing for something like this.

“I feel like that’s why we took this mission on,” she said. “Every week, we change, we evolve. We’re just kind of rolling with the punches.”

First Parish has also set up online ordering with the help of Sue McKittrick, board president of Pennies for Poverty, and Kailey Burke, program coordinator for Nourishing the North Shore.

For a list of free groceries available in the Greater Newburyport area, go to

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