NEWBURY — The Select Board voted Nov. 9 to earmark $100,000 in federal pandemic relief money for the First Parish Church of Newbury food pantry.
The vote comes at an opportune time for the all-volunteer pantry, which is operating out of temporary garage space on Hanover Street and seeing a steady increase in the number of people needing food when it is distributed each Friday.
The board’s unanimous vote to approve a letter of support would allocate $100,000 of the $2.1 million that Newbury officials anticipate receiving in federal American Rescue Plan Act funding.
The ARPA money will be used to buy food and pay for continuing expenses incurred because of the pandemic, according to Mary Murray, treasurer of the First Parish Newbury Food Pantry board.
The pantry took over the sanctuary of First Parish Church at 20 High Road for a year during the pandemic when the church shifted to online services for health reasons.
The pantry lined church pews with groupings of food items and personal care products – similar to how grocery store shelves are organized – so masked volunteers could observe social distancing as they went in one direction through the sanctuary filling bags for individual grocery orders.
Volunteers had to create an online ordering service during the pandemic as part of its no-contact operation, purchase bags for food – since the reusable grocery bags clients used to bring on Fridays before the pandemic could not be used – and regularly replenish supplies of personal protective gear and cleaning supplies.
In its letter to the Newbury Select Board seeking the ARPA money, the food pantry board said, “Larger numbers of guests and the changes made to accommodate COVID restrictions have had a significant impact on the Pantry’s operating expenses.”
The pantry incurred “significant expense increases ... in 2021 due in part to moving expenses, equipment, fixtures, utilities and other occupancy costs.”
The letter said, “We anticipate that the pandemic’s impact will continue to have a significant influence on our guests and on the Pantry’s operations.”
Before the pandemic, the Greater Boston Food Bank reported that 360 people in Newbury did not have a reliable source of healthy food, a number that shot up to 710 people by July 2020.
As the church resumed in-person Sunday services, the pantry relocated to a garage at 89 Hanover St. loaned by Mary-Jo and Bryce Anderson. At the same time, the food pantry board unveiled plans to construct a 40-by-40-foot metal frame building on land next to the church parking lot for a permanent home, with a fundraising goal of $350,000.
The $100,000 in ARPA money cannot be used for that building, but will be used to buy food and pay for pandemic-related expenses.
Murray said the money will also be used to help pay to power electric space heaters in the garage this winter.
Jane Merrow, a co-founder of the pantry, said it continues to see a growing number of people each week, with the most recent Friday serving 315 people representing more than 160 households.
Volunteers not only take orders and bag the groceries and personal care items, but volunteer drivers make as many as 115 deliveries to homes, senior housing complexes and apartments in the region.
Some 50% of clients of the pantry live in Newburyport, 25% in Newbury, and the rest are spread among Rowley, Salisbury, Ipswich, West Newbury and, most recently, Georgetown.
For more about First Parish Newbury Food Pantry, go to www.newburyfoodpantry.org.
Richard K. Lodge is editor of The Daily News.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the Georgetown food pantry had closed during the pandemic. According to Colleen Ranshaw-Fiorello, director of the Georgetown Council on Aging, the Georgetown COA Marketplace (food pantry) continued to operate and serve consumers during the shut-down. The program remains in full operation, providing consumers with non-perishable items, cleaning products, paper goods and personal care items.