ATLANTIC CITY — Since the casinos temporary shut down in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many nonprofits throughout the city have been feeding those newly out of a job on top of continuing with the work that they regularly do.
And while many have donated to those organizations to help feed the hungry, the Salvation Army is operating at capacity and struggling to meet the growing needs of the community.
From March 17 to May 12, The Salvation Army in the city had given out 170,018 meals through its soup kitchen and food pantry, a 288% increase from the same period last year, said Frank Picciotto, commanding officer for the Salvation Army in Atlantic City.
“We’re feeding a lot of people,” Picciotto said. “Right now the storage room is empty. Ever since the COVID-19 epidemic, as soon as everything comes in, it goes out.”
On the food pantry side, a family of four people or fewer gets one box of food items. A family of five or more gets two boxes. The boxes are stocked with canned goods, rice, pasta, fruits and vegetables and meat, which the Salvation Army has been running short of.
The food pantry operates in the morning and afternoon and the soup kitchen offers lunch, a snack and a beverage beginning at noon.
The soup kitchen has been receiving sandwiches from local churches, as well as donated food items from some of the casinos. And while the donations have helped, the organization is still struggling.
The organization also receives a shipment of nine pallets of food, from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey once a month.
That shipment typically lasts 30 days, in the current climate, it has only been lasting two weeks.
Recently, the storage room, lined with baker’s racks, had nothing on them.
The commercial refrigerator was completely empty.
Before the epidemic, they were lined with canned foods, nonperishable items and vegetables, Picciotto said. The refrigerator would usually have milk and eggs. Another storage room had the bare minimum with a few canned items.
“There are times during the month that we have to purchase stuff, like breakfast items,” he said. “We’re in need of financial help, just to keep us running.”
Before the outbreak, the organization was feeding about 40 families a day through the food pantry. It’s now feeding about 60 families daily.
And it’s hard to keep up. The Salvation Army is in desperate need of milk, eggs, nonperishable foods, breakfast items, lunch meats, peanut butter, utensils and disposable food containers.
To help with storage, an anonymous donor has donated a commercial freezer and refrigerator. The freezer came Thursday.
Picciotto would hate to see it sit empty.
“My heart breaks when we’re really low (on items),” he said. “Right before we got a shipment, we only had fruit to give out. Or we had chicken strips, and that’s about it.”
The organization’s after-school program has also stopped, which worries Kerrece McClain, the program supervisor.
“We reach out to see how they’re doing, and remind them that we have services here and to see if they need anything,” she said.
The after-school program, which specifically works with kids from Texas Avenue and Sovereign Avenue schools, consisted of homework help, activities, a meal and local field trips.
Since the stay-at-home order, the program has stopped, but the need is still there. She said teachers have reached out to her and asked for food and snack items for their students as they stay home.
“The schools offer meals for the kids, but it’s only breakfast and lunch,” she said. “But the thing is, when the kids go home with their meal, they have siblings, so they’re giving them their snacks.”
Since the outbreak, she has seen some of the kids in the program come with their parents to get lunch from the soup kitchen. But the hardest part is not knowing how the kids are doing.
Elizabeth Vega-Relyea, a child care aide for The Salvation Army, said even though the organization has been helping a lot of people in need, the food pantry runs out quicker than expected.
Since the outbreak, she’s seen more out-of-work casino employees picking up food for their children who are home.
“A lot of the parents are very appreciative,” she said. “Just last week I had a lady here and she has six kids and her husband left her. We gave her two boxes of food and before she walked out she started crying, thanking us.”