- Associated Press - Saturday, April 4, 2020

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - The church at 13th and F streets has hosted a FoodNet distribution site for four years, serving more than 100 of its Near South neighbors and their families every week.

No questions asked. No proof of need required.

“If a person shows up at our door,” co-coordinator Mark DeVries said, “we give them food.”

But now it’s not that simple. The people they help feed no longer gather in the basement of the F Street Neighborhood Church, waiting for their turn to fill boxes and bags with donated food, according to the Lincoln Journal Star. Instead, they wait in the parking lot to be ushered in by volunteers, no more than eight allowed inside the building at a time.

DeVries stops each at the entrance, taking temperatures with an infrared thermometer, supplying hand sanitizer, trying to prevent the spread of a virus to people who need help filling their cupboards.

The consequences of the coronavirus have been hard on FoodNet, a 35-year-old nonprofit that, annually, draws 90,000 recipients to its sites and serves an estimated 250,000 people.

It lost six of its 18 distribution sites after their hosts closed their doors, said Leia Noel, the group’s longtime president. And this during a time when people are losing their jobs and their incomes and might need nourishment more than ever.

“We’re seeing different people we haven’t seen before,” she said. “People are hearing about us and meeting some of their basic needs for food.”

Also, FoodNet’s ranks are getting stretched. Many of its volunteers are elderly and more vulnerable to the virus, and they’re staying away.

Noel understands. “That’s been their choice, but I think it’s a really good idea.”

But there’s also been a bittersweet blessing: Some of the businesses that donate to FoodNet are giving more because they’re selling less.

“There’s a lot of food being donated, and we’re so thankful to the community for its generosity,” she said. “But we feel really bad that some of the restaurants are giving food away when they’re already taking a loss.”

The loss of distribution sites was a blow, as a half-dozen hosts prohibited the pickups and the crowds they can generate. The Korean Church of Lincoln. Northwest Lincoln Church of Christ. The Center for People in Need. Calvert Recreation Center. Denton’s community center. Milford’s fire hall.

But Mark Johnson wasn’t ready to let the people the nonprofit helps in Milford go hungry.

Especially now. “At this point, with jobs being impacted, this is when food is needed the most.”

His Seward County town 20 minutes west of Lincoln has hosted a FoodNet site for 14 years and draws up to 85 people weekly, some from as far as David City, only closing when the Friday distribution coincided with Christmas.

So he and the other coordinator got to work, packing boxes themselves and delivering food to those they knew needed it most.

That first week, they filled 30 boxes.

Then they heard from a pastor who said he’d help get boxes to members of his congregation. And then they heard from another pastor, offering the use of his church’s parking lot for an outdoor distribution site.

That should start next week and, weather-permitting, will continue until the fire hall can safely welcome them back, Johnson said.

“Unless the governor shuts me down, I am going to keep going.”

In Lincoln, Noel also had to make changes to the distribution site she coordinates, First Street Bible Church.

The 150 or so recipients stay outside now, in their cars. Noel and others load the food in their trunks and backseats, keeping their distance. It’s first-come, first-served; no more drawing numbers for a place in line.

They’re careful to keep the portions equal. “We try to serve everybody,” she said. “Even though you might be the first 20 people, we hope the last 80 to 100 or more get the same.”

Because it’s important to her, and other volunteers, that the FoodNet clients that rely on them have something to take home, she said.

“Feeding people is a basic need. And I guess we just want to help.”

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