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Damian Hardin pulled his SUV up behind a long line of cars outside Shepherd’s Heart Food Pantry on Thursday to get bread, milk and other food from the Waco nonprofit.

The 24-year-old Waco man said it was the first time in more than a year he had gathered groceries for his family of three at the food pantry, at 1401 N. 34th St. The food pantry’s drive-thru operation is just one example of a local service organization adjusting so it can continue to offer help while limiting potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

“My wife has come here a few times, but it’s been a while since I’ve had to come here in a while,” Hardin said. “This is major help. Without this, it would be a lot tighter for us. I couldn’t even imagine.”

Shepherd’s Heart opened Thursday to serve a long line of cars waiting for its first non-contact food distribution during the coronavirus pandemic. Volunteers packed boxes full of staple foods including cereal, milk, bread, canned vegetables, produce and meats before boxes were placed in clients’ cars.

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A sign at Shepherd's Heart alerts clients to drive-thru distribution, a precaution against COVID-19.

Shepherd’s Heart executive director Robert Gager said the pantry shifted from client-choice shopping to the drive-thru option to comply with public health guidelines.

“I am in my 70s and I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve been through a whole lot of pandemics before but this is completely different,” Gager said. “We have done drive-thru service before so we kind of have a feel for it and we have a delivery service for about 700 home-bound seniors, but this is crazy. To have the whole world shut down, we’ve never done this before on this scale.”

Shepherd’s Heart serves about 2,800 clients on a monthly basis, distributing food to low-income clients. He said the recent surge to stock up on grocery items has been unnerving. The Central Texas Food Bank has posted notices reminding residents that food pantries are for people facing food insecurity, including food insecurity made worse by the coronavirus situation. Pantries are not intended as a source for items temporarily out of stock at grocery stores.

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Staff and volunteers at Shepherd's Heart Food Pantry sort food into boxes Thursday for clients to pick up in a drive-thru line.

Many other nonprofits are also adjusting their services to clients to prevent public contact. Caritas of Waco’s food pantry, one of several services it offers, has seen a slight uptick in clients despite changes in operations, Executive Director Buddy Edwards said.

“We’ve made some adjustments in our normal operating procedures, when we are normally open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., modifying that to 9 to 11:30 a.m. then 1 to 3 p.m.,” Edwards said. “We’ve streamlined that process and are preparing food orders now to prepackaged orders, and we are limiting the people in the pantry to 10 people or less.”

Next week, it will start a drive-thru operation similar to Shepherd’s Heart’s. Volunteers will deliver presorted packages to clients lined up in their vehicles.

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Caritas of Waco volunteer Linda Chambers sanitizes a shopping cart this week at the nonprofit’s food pantry.

“We are also trying to limit exposure to our volunteers and clients from any kind of transmission from any kind of illness,” Edwards said.

Volunteers and staff at the Gospel Cafe, which serves meals to needy residents on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at 825 S. 10th St., has also changed procedures by serving to-go meals. All nonprofits that deal directly with the people they serve are making adjustments and seeing an increase in clients, said Sherry Castello, Gospel Cafe volunteer coordinator and kitchen manager.

“We did have to close early (Wednesday), because we had more people then we normally had,” Castello said. “Our cooks are in the kitchen and our servers are on the porch taking orders and getting food to individuals outside.”

Staff at The Salvation Army Waco is revamping its food service and shelter procedures in all housing units. Maj. Jim Taylor said social service agencies are facing unprecedented challenges.

“The Salvation Army cleans and disinfects stuff pretty regularly, but this is requiring us to do it even more. … We have to be intentional about everything,” Taylor said.

Mattresses and door handles, for example, are getting extra cleanings, and showers have to be cleaned after every use, he said.

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Salvation Army Shelter Director Jorge Delgado sanitizes a mattress in the sleeping quarters at the Webster Avenue shelter Thursday.

Shelter director Jorge Delgado wiped down a mattress Thursday after a client left the shelter. He said laundry is done on a daily basis, and food service has moved to a covered, outdoor area to allow clients to keep a safe distance from each other.

“Some clients think this is not serious, joke about it. Others are more extreme and who take it seriously want to be informed,” Delgado said. “I usually average about 16 a night in the shelter, but now we are having about half of that, but people are wanting to distance themselves.”

At both Salvation Army and Mission Waco shelters, staff members are taking temperatures and monitoring the health of those coming in from outside areas. Each nonprofit is seeking volunteers and donations in order to help keep some services operational while COVID-19 procedures are in place.

To get more information, Shepherd’s Heart can be reached at 722-9517; Caritas of Waco at 753-4593; Gospel Cafe at 753-5916; The Salvation Army Waco at 756-7271; and Mission Waco at 753-4900.


Photos: The latest images from the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., around the world

Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

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