The number of people coming in to get food from the Community Assistance Center at 208 E. 12th has changed since last week, said co-director Lori Mortinger.
"It was kind of slow, it was just a few every day. Today it’s been six. I think it’s going to start picking up," Mortinger said. "We’ve seen more new people coming in than so many of the regulars."
At the St. Joseph’s Catholic Church food pantry, which is open the first and third Saturday of each month, pantry coordinator Renee Michaud said she sees a difference in their distribution of nonperishable food boxes to Ellis County residents.
"Ever since December it’s kind of changed in pattern, so it’s been rather unpredictable ever since the first of the year," Michaud said. "As an average, right now, we’re probably giving out between 110 and 130 boxes of food on a pantry morning."
By order of Gov. Laura Kelly, Kansas went into stay-at-home mode on March 30. Kelly also banned evictions and utility shut-offs.
"We had one pantry day when we gave out about 140 boxes. So that was a little bit of an uptick for us, but I really have not seen a steady increase," Michaud said. "I guess maybe it’s coming."
First Call for Help, 607 E. 13th, helps people with everything from food, diapers and hygiene items to money for rent and utilities.
"We have seen mostly an increase in people requesting food at this time," said executive director Linda Mills. "And that’s probably due to most likely the fact that there are no evictions or shut-offs until May 1 and that was ordered by the governor."
The last two weeks of March were very busy with phone calls requesting food boxes, Mills said. What First Call gave out in February, it doubled in March.
The St. Joseph pantry provides First Call with food boxes each month. First Call supplements those with some additional items and distributes them to people in need on alternate weeks from the pantry.
"Just this morning we’ve already had three or four," Mills said.
Heartland Community Foundation, 1200 Main, in recent weeks gave $5,000 each to the food pantries in Rooks and Trego counties, said executive director Sandy Jacobs. Heartland supplies pass-through grants from the Dane G. Hansen Foundation, Logan, normally during three scheduled annual cycles. But in March they did something Jacobs had never seen before at the foundation, which was to make immediate needs grants, which went to the food pantries, and $10,000 to Trego County-Lemke Memorial Hospital for COVID-19 preparedness.
Heartland’s current grant cycle runs through May 15 for the three counties the foundation serves. Applying is easy with a simple form from the website, heartlandcommunityfoundation.org, Jacobs said.
"The Hansen Foundation is allowing us to look at things a little differently," she said. "Normally foundations don’t grant operational needs, they’re more project-driven. But given what’s going on now, and the nonprofits’ inability to work and raise funds, that could be looked at differently."
Mortinger says the Community Assistance Center recently got help from the Schmidt Foundation, Hays, and Bank of Hays. With a combination of matching and donated money, the Center will raise as much as $20,000, or more, to stock up.
"That’ll all be spent on groceries, as needed," she said, supplying food to Ellis County residents on the basis of income. Mortinger hopes that will last until October, but it’s hard to say.
"There’s no way to know that. And we don’t know day-to-day how many people are going to come in. There’s no way to guess on that with the way things are," she said. "I think in the next few weeks we’ll see more. Today’s been pretty steady and we’ve had three new ones just today. So I think we’re going to see more increases as time goes on and people are home longer."
First Call’s Mills expects to start seeing calls for rent assistance and utilities, unless Kelly extends her order banning evictions and utility cut-offs.
"What we are concerned about when we do start getting those calls, whether the assistance we can provide them is going to be able to get them caught up as soon as all of this is over, because a lot of people don’t have jobs," Mills said. "They’ve either been laid off, or stores have been shut down, so we do expect to have a big surge on May 1."
Last year’s numbers could double or triple this year, with so many laid off and not working.
Typically renters pay anywhere from $650 to $800 a month on their one- or two-bedroom apartments, with First Call providing $200 to $300 for those who meet the criteria, Mills said. Catholic Charities and Salvation Army sometimes kick-in an additional $100 to $150.
"That helps us keep them in their place for at least another month," she said. "We hope to be able to give them more than what our limits have been, but that’s going to depend on funding."
First Call’s staff is looking for more money, through small grants. It was awarded a $500 United Way relief grant. She’s not heard whether the eviction and utility bans will remain in force.
"I don’t know if they’re gong to extend it or not," Mills said. "We’ll just have to wait and see."
St. Joseph’s next distribution is Saturday to any resident of Ellis County. Donations to the pantry, and box pick up, are handled from the old Kennedy Middle School at 14th and Fort streets.
Sometimes they have frozen meat and bread or garden vegetables as well, Michaud said. About 75% of the food is purchased from the Kansas Food Bank, and the rest is donated locally.
"What I have I usually turn over in a month’s time," she said. "If the numbers start rising quickly, we might start finding ourselves a bit short. But thanks be to God, we’ve always had food to meet the need."
People used to come indoors to pick up their boxes, but now they get in a car train in the parking lot and volunteers run boxes out.
Michaud’s not sure what to expect in coming weeks.
"I have a feeling we’re going to feel it coming here within the next month or so," she said. "The longer this goes on, the more I think we’re going to start to see that people are struggling."