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Chapel Hill's drive-thru food distribution adapts in the wake of COVID-19

Volunteers help with food distribution at Chapel Hill Public Library on Friday, May 22, 2020. Photo courtesy of Tom Simon.

In Chapel Hill’s late-May heat, Loryn Clark fills each box seated on her dark blue cart with items like sweet potatoes and milk. 

Clark, the executive director of the Town’s housing and community department, was one of the volunteers at the weekly drive-thru food distribution at Chapel Hill Public Library’s lower-level parking lot. On Friday, the event handed out family-sized boxes of food to 576 households, which included 2,391 individuals. 

For about five years, the Town has partnered with the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina to distribute food at public housing communities like Colony Woods West and South Estes Drive.

However, as the pandemic has caused food demand to increase significantly, the traditional walk-up distribution didn't seem safe anymore, said Public Housing Director Faith Brodie.

To continue to serve the local community through the pandemic, the Town and the Food Bank have collaborated with PORCH, a hunger relief organization in the Chapel Hill and Carrboro area that is familiar with large-scale distribution and volunteer recruitment.  

Debbie Horwitz, one of the three co-founders and directors of PORCH, said this past Friday, about 40 volunteers wearing masks and gloves collected data, packed food items and directed the car line.

Meanwhile, the Chapel Hill Police Department managed traffic control, and the transportation of food from the Durham branch of the Food Bank to the site by TWO MEN AND A TRUCK moving company helped increase distribution. 

Horwitz said the distribution is a group effort.

“Everyone is needed,” Horwitz said. “Everyone is pretty busy around the clock.”

UNC public health graduate students Emily Howe and Rachel Cominsky, who volunteered as data collectors at the site, heard about the event through their academic department. 

Cominsky said volunteering is “a way to feel helpful” during the pandemic.

As Cominsky asked for the number of households and families in need, Howe put a purple sticky note on the car to signify distributors of the appropriate amount of food they distribute.

Jennifer Woods, the outreach coordinator for the Durham branch of the Food Bank, said the amount of food distributed during the pandemic has varied from week to week.

“What each family gets changes every week,” Woods said. “It depends on what we have available in our warehouse, but it’s usually a nice assortment of produce, dry goods, water, sometimes milk and eggs.”

Nonetheless, continuing to offer food assistance during the pandemic is important to the local community, Woods said.

“We have a lot of people who have lost jobs, who are not able to work a second job and who have reduced income, so the strain on people's budget has increased,” she said.

Different organizations have collaborated to run the food distribution and to show how “the community is coming together to really care for people,” Horwitz said. 

The hope of the Town’s food assistance programs, including the food distribution, is to meet the needs of people who “have to make decisions about purchasing food” and other essential items, Brodie said. 

“I hope knowing that there's a place they can come get good, clean and sustaining food, at no charge with no investigation, relieves some of their fears about what the future holds and allows them to feed their family,” she said.

@DTHCityState |

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