Before she became the president of the executive board of the Mount Kisco Interfaith Food Pantry, South Salem resident Kelley Housman and her family volunteered there, spending hours filling bags with food items for holiday meals.
Six years ago, Ms. Housman’s congregation, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Northern Westchester, needed a representative to serve on the food pantry board. She jumped at the opportunity. Ms. Housman became deeply involved, co-chairing committees, serving as vice president of the board and eventually assuming the role of board president.
“It has been really an honor and a pleasure,” Ms. Housman said. “I am so impressed with the level of dedication and skill that our volunteers and board members bring to the organization.”
Ms. Housman, who is in the third year of her term, emphasized that the food pantry is largely operated by volunteers who are responsible for its success. Her main role is to provide leadership and accountability for the board. “Our volunteers from the very beginning throughout our 30 years of services have been the backbone of our organization,” Ms. Housman said.
The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship is one of 13 congregations who sponsor the Mount Kisco Interfaith Food Pantry and provide representatives to the board. That number has grown from just three local congregations when the pantry was first formed. At the time, it served 8 to 10 families. The pantry later moved to the United Methodist Church in Mount Kisco, and, before the pandemic, increased operations to serve approximately 300 families each week.
Ms. Housman said the pantry had to pivot quickly in the early days of the pandemic, putting in place safety measures and meeting the soaring demand for their services. Ms. Housman said that last week, the pantry served approximately 1,500 individuals and made over 100 home deliveries, a stark increase from the 900 individuals they served and 20 home deliveries they made in a typical week before the pandemic.
The need continued to grow. In 2020, the pantry served 68,000 individuals and distributed 600,000 pounds of food. In 2021, Ms. Housman said she projects that it will distribute over 750,000 pounds of food.
“What’s allowed us to react and respond effectively is that 30 years of experience,” Ms. Housman said.
Ms. Housman said that when COVID-19 first hit, they tried to limit shopping for one customer at a time, but eventually had to move the pantry outdoors. Also, they could no longer allow clients to select their own groceries and began prepackaging bags.
Ms. Housman said the Mount Kisco Interfaith Food Pantry differs from many other feeding programs in the area because their clients can come once a week for groceries, as opposed to monthly. Under normal conditions, clients also can shop for their own groceries in the pantry’s grocery room.
Ms. Housman also noted that much of the food available at the pantry is sourced from Feeding Westchester at a discounted rate. She added that if the inventory is low at Feeding Westchester, the pantry will outsource to other wholesalers in order to provide their clients with the same high-quality options.
While COVID-19 continues, clients check in at the outdoor location and are handed prepackaged groceries, including bags of fresh produce and proteins.
Ms. Housman said a lot of their clients were hit hard by the pandemic and struggled to find alternative employment. As a result, many families have increased the frequency of their visits, with weekly being more the norm.
Ms. Housman also emphasized that clients use the pantry judiciously to fill the gaps in their finances. The service provides a kind of nutritional safety net, which allows individuals to meet their other needs like paying rent, utilities, and buying shoes for their children.
She recalled the story of one client who went to the pantry for many years and then suddenly stopped. The staff learned that the client had been saving the money she otherwise would have spent on groceries, and used those savings eventually to buy a car, enabling her to find employment. Once in her new job, she no longer needed the pantry’s services.
Ms. Housman said the pantry serves families from any town in northern Westchester that lacks a weekly food pantry. The majority of clients live in Mount Kisco and Bedford Hills. She added that the fastest growing group of people using the pantry are senior citizens.
Ms. Housman highlighted some of the pantry’s other features. These include a text-alert system to notify clients of food distribution changes due to weather conditions, as well as a summer program for families with school-aged children who need extra food while school lunch programs are shut down. There are also tools for community members to support the pantry through food drives or donations by shopping using the Amazon Wish List.
Looking forward, Ms. Housman said she hopes that as more people get vaccinated, the pandemic will ease, and the pantry will be able to open their doors again for in-person shopping. However, even then, the new normal for the pantry will be to limit the number of people inside at the same time.
Ms. Housman said the pantry has been fortunate so far to have experienced no outbreaks of COVID-19 due to the diligence of volunteers staying home if they were exposed or feel sick. Ms. Housman said their volunteers are still not eligible for the vaccine, but she is preparing documentation for volunteers to receive their vaccines when they become eligible.
“I’m just really privileged to work with incredibly passionate, compassionate skilled people,” Ms. Housman said.