Demand escalates for pet food pantries during COVID-19 crisis: 'We didn't know how we were going to manage'July 10, 2020 9:46am

July 08-- CHICAGO-Nancy Meyerson struggled to fall asleep for weeks after the pet food pantry she oversees closed because of COVID-19.

"We didn't know how we were going to manage," said Meyerson, board chair of Care for Real, a nonprofit with a pet food pantry in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood.

"I personally have never been terrified for myself," she said. "But the thought of closing down when there were so many people in need kept me awake at night. It kept all of us awake."

Chicago animal shelters and pet food pantries have scrambled to provide enough resources for pet owners as demand has escalated as people have lost their jobs and suffered financial strain during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many pet food pantries in the region have shut down, while others looked to new ways of doing things to stay afloat.

"From the 15th of March to ... the end of May, we registered 600 new households," Meyerson said. "That's almost as many clients as we registered for all of 2019."

Pantries have had to abandon their reliance on volunteers, many of whom have been told to stay at home to adhere to social distancing guidelines and minimize exposure to COVID-19. As a result, fewer workers are picking up more work.

Care for Real, which also provides food and clothes for people, started a pop-up food pantry in Rogers Park because others had shut down in the area, Meyerson said. The added labor meant their pet food pantry had to temporarily close while a smaller number of staffers tried to help more people in need of other essentials.

But during the three months the pet pantry was closed, inquiries poured in about its reopening, Meyerson said.

"We found out that many of the people, particularly seniors, would choose to feed their pets rather than themselves," Meyerson said. "So they would go hungry to provide food for their animals."

Several other groups that provide food to people struggling to feed their pets also have seen an uptick in demand.

Evanston Animal Shelter has been giving out about 1,000 pounds of pet food a week since COVID-19 reached Chicago, said Vicky Pasenko, shelter executive director. The need has been so strong that the organization now buys its own pet food to give out instead of relying on donations.

"We're basically tapping into every resource we can find to make sure that we can continue to keep the pantry funded," Pasenko said.

The result has been a shift in focus to finding donations, instead of new homes, for pets in the community. Organizations have turned to virtual pet food drives and events to bring in the money needed to sustain themselves.

"Everybody realize(s) the need for the pet food pantry," said Megan Lutz, vice president on the board of C.A.R.E., a Skokie animal rescue that operates a pet food pantry twice a month.

"We're still doing the animal rescue, but now it's part of our mission to support pet owners and keep animals out of shelters," Lutz said.

C.A.R.E. grew from 15 pet food pantry clients before the coronavirus pandemic to about 150, Lutz said. She noticed pet owners scrambling as local shelters and pet food pantries shut down in the pandemic's wake.

But as the community's need for pet food grows, help from the community also has skyrocketed.

Cook County awarded $8 million in animal shelter grants to the city of Evanston in late May to prevent animal overcrowding. Pet adoptions have soared for many organizations.

According to PetPoint, which compiles data related to animals in rescue and welfare organizations, since March Illinois has seen a 23% rise in foster care for dogs and 22% increase for cats as compared with the same time period in 2019.

All of the animals in C.A.R.E.'s shelter were taken in by foster homes two days after the group advertised the need, Lutz said. In addition, during a recent virtual food drive, C.A.R.E. brought in more than 2,300 pounds of dry pet food and 1,000 cans of pet food.

"This is pretty unprecedented how it hit so many people personally, either through family members getting sick or people getting laid off work," Lutz said. "People are still putting their volunteerism first is what we're realizing."

Lutz compared the community's response to the aftermath of a hurricane. Just as people come together to rescue animals after a natural disaster, donors and foster families have stepped up to help others impacted by COVID-19.

"We have over 350 volunteers so we know what the community does," Lutz said. "This just reinforces that when something that's bigger than all of us is happening, people will still come together for a cause that they believe in."


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