Volunteer Shortage Risks Food Pantry Closure

By Eliot Duke
Dunn Daily Record

Angier Area Food Pantry helped its community weather plenty of storms.

A volunteer carries food to a car outside the Angier Area Food Pantry. The pantry is in danger of closing without an influx of more volunteers.

Over the past 19 years, volunteers donated their time as families struggled through economic downturns and a global pandemic. When families turned to the agency during quiet news cycles, needing a helping hand during an unexpected crisis, the pantry provided a lifeline.

Volunteers kept the pantry’s doors open since its beginning. If the doors are to remain open, a new generation will have to answer a similar call to public service.

COVID-19 decimated the agency’s volunteer staff. Retirees generally make up the workforce of most food pantries, leaving them exposed to a coronavirus that proved particularly worse among senior citizens.

“We lost 3/4 of our volunteers when COVID hit,” Jeff Gray, president of the Angier Area Food Pantry, said. “Our volunteers are all retirees and they were afraid to catch COVID. We are down to seven now and for the last year and a half those seven have been working their behinds off.”

Gray reached out to area pastors in an effort to attract volunteers, but so far hasn’t received any nibbles. With two more volunteers set to retire soon, Gray said the pantry may not survive if reinforcements don’t arrive soon.

“I’ll make one more round and call all the pastors and say, ‘I hate to use the word desperate, but we’re desperate,’” said Gray. “We’re at a point that if we don’t get volunteers we’ll be shutting down or someone else will be taking over the food pantry.”

The need for food traditionally ebbed and flowed over the years, with occasional spikes followed by encouraging dips. A big spike came when the pandemic first hit. Then a lull as stimulus money flooded the economy. Gray said demand for food is down right now, but many of those government funding mechanisms are expiring soon. When extra unemployment benefits run out and people have to go back to work, Gray expects demand to return.

“It’s really down now because everyone is handing out these food boxes that the government is providing through a lot of different programs,” Gray said. “Once the stimulus stops, they’ll come back. I track the numbers from month to month and I can tell you when those stimulus checks hit. That’s when your numbers dropped. Once those payments stop, people are going to be desperate again. When you’re getting $650 a week in your pocket, I guess it’s not so important to come and get free food.”

A volunteer helps inside the Angier Area Food Pantry. The pantry is in danger of closing without an influx of new volunteers.

Two drivers said they were retiring at the end of July, leaving Gray needing at least four people to keep the pantry operational. The pantry distributes food on Tuesday and Thursday morning, and Gray said he could use someone to help out picking up donations from area Food Lions.

“I would say four people would definitely help us, that way we wouldn’t burn our volunteers out,” said Gray. “I need at least two people who are able to drive pickups trucks. We supply the vehicles. We could use someone at least one day a week, either Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday, but ideally all three.”

Angier Area Food Pantry started in a little store room at First Baptist Church, bringing together volunteers to serve a community. If the pantry hopes to stay open, a new generation of volunteers will have to serve.