The COVID-19 pandemic is confronting food pantries across Greater Phoenix, including Ezra Cholim of Phoenix’s Arizona Kosher Pantry and Jewish Family & Children's Service's Just 3 Things Food Pantry, with a dual set of challenges: many more families in need and new hurdles to donating and delivering food.
“We basically supply meals to about 300 families a week,” said Chaim Milrad, who works for Ezras Cholim of Phoenix. “The numbers have definitely gone up drastically since COVID.”
For Chanukah, Arizona Kosher Food Pantry volunteer Sheila Rinde launched a marketing campaign to encourage Jewish community members to make a donation of $18 or $36 to the pantry’s Tomchei Shabbos program.
“Because it’s right before Chanukah, we really want to make sure anybody who needs a holiday or hot meal will be served properly,” Rinde said last week. “And then obviously, the greater world needs food and it’s right before Christmas. The idea is to really serve our community as much as we can.”
Feeding the hungry, Rinde said, is especially important during the pandemic.
“This is a mitzvah that really pulls at the heartstrings of somebody’s neshama,” Rinde said. “I’m not sure how many people really understand how great this need is.”
She and her husband also ran a campaign for donations during Rosh Hashanah, urging the Jewish community to start the year out with a mitzvah. The food pantry is grateful for every donation that’s made, no matter how small or large; the important thing, Rinde said, is to raise the community’s
consciousness about the need for food.
“The idea is that challah is really an integral part of Shabbat, so we’re really starting with that,” Rinde said. “There are so many Jewish stories throughout history of people who provided food and challahs to the greater community — that goes all the way back to biblical times.”
JFCS' Just 3 Things is also seeing an increased need for food assistance during the pandemic. In light of that reality, JFCS has expanded its food pantry program to all seven of its sites, making it easier for clients from all programs to access the food that they need.
“They’re making it work, and I’m proud of that fact,” said Holly Packer, a volunteer who founded Just 3 Things for JFCS’s Real World Job Development and Youth In Transition programs in 2011. “But there’s definitely an ongoing need for food.”
With the number of JFCS clients growing, Packer is glad to see the project finally expand.
“Food insecurity shouldn’t be a stumbling block on their journey, on their path,” Packer said. “It should just be readily available, to any client in the mental health clinics or Shelter Without Walls … [When] there’s a meal, it makes life easier.”
With COVID restrictions making it trickier to donate food this holiday season, Packer said, food pantries and their donors are getting creative. Where normally people would solicit donations at holiday parties or have donation boxes set up at synagogues, this year, more people are delivering directly to JFCS’s administrative office or ordering via Instacart.
“There are just different ways now of collecting the food and having gift cards and having food mailed,” Packer said. “You just find the different ways.”
As for AKP, the organization is in the midst of a transition, Milrad said, and could use the financial assistance of community members to keep its services going. In addition to the food pantry, Ezras Cholim of Phoenix offers rehabilitation support, patient advocacy services and hospital visitations for the sick.
As COVID-19 cases rise, AKP is there to make sure that families who test positive stay fed.
“More and more people in the community are getting the virus,” Milrad said, “and we’re arranging for deliveries to be made to their home, so they can remain at home and quarantine and still get plenty of food.”
The campaign to raise funds for the Tomchei Shabbat program is one way of making sure that the AKP is able to keep doing its part to help the community.
“They’re highly organized, and they do have a lot of support, but they really need more support from the Jewish community in the Valley,” Rinde said.
Ultimately, the impetus behind the food pantries comes back to the desire to help and the simple act of sharing a meal.
“It brings an infinite potential for blessing, for unity to our homes and our lives,” Rinde said. “So the challahs are really offering life and love. Sending them to those in need really brightens their world.” JN