Officials with the Mitchell Food Pantry are encouraging patrons to call ahead for food pickup after the local food source saw a significant drop in usage in the aftermath of the COVID-19 global outbreak.

Karen Pooley, a director at the Mitchell Food Pantry, said the organization has seen an approximate 25 percent drop in usage in April and May after the pantry was forced to close its space to in-store shopping to help prevent the spread of the disease, which has killed over 300,000 people around the world since early 2020.

Pooley said the downturn in people coming in to get food for their dinner table was unexpected.

“We beefed up the inventory to get ready for this,” Pooley said. “I don’t know why we’re down.”

Pooley said there are a number of theories on why usage of the pantry is down, though she said the full picture is unclear. Some think the federal COVID-19 stimulus checks being sent out has lessened the need for affordable food choices, though she thinks that scenario is unlikely. It may have something to do with the way the pantry has had to change its procedures in recent months.

Pooley said the pantry, which moved from its former home on First Avenue in Mitchell to a portion of the Slumberland building on North Rowley Street in February, had just begun settling into its new location when it was forced to close its doors to in-person shopping March 11. That changed the way the pantry gets food into the hands of the people who need it, she said.

The pantry usually operates on a client choice format, which allows those in need of food to come to the pantry and select a designated number of items off the shelves themselves. But with the pantry space closed to the general public, Pooley said volunteers are taking calls from clients, assembling boxes of food based on family size, and bringing the boxes out to the parking lot for pickup.

The drawback to the new system is that clients can’t select the specific items they want, but volunteers do the best they can to assemble boxes of food that is appealing to families of various sizes.

The staff at the Mitchell Food Pantry, which usually serves between 1,000 and 1,200 people every month, has even waived some of its usual protocols to make it easier for clients to pick up food. They have temporarily suspended requirements like showing photo identification in order to qualify for assistance. Pooley said the pantry is encouraging anyone in a tight financial spot who needs help acquiring nutritious food items to call them at 990-3663 and a volunteer will help guide them through the new process. Information can also be found on the pantry Facebook page at www.facebook.com/mitchellfoodpantry.

“Just call. We’ll ask whatever questions we have to, but we’re obviously not qualifying as closely as we used to,” Pooley said.

While the drop in usage has been unexpected and unusual, Pooley said donations to the pantry have been steady and even increased since the outbreak. Both County Fair and Coborn’s have made generous donations, she said, and individual donors have also stepped up to make sure the pantry shelves are stocked in a time of crisis.

“Donations are up, whether it’s food or money,” Pooley said.

And volunteerism remains steady, as well, she said. That all adds up to an organization that is ready, willing and able to help fulfill the food needs of area residents in need. But those in need to reach out by phone, she said. Even though the main space of the pantry is closed to the general public, the shelves are stocked and the volunteers are ready to assemble food boxes for those who need a little help putting food on the table.

“We can prebox a small box, a medium box, a large box. So when they call, it really doesn’t take that long. It’s just different,” Pooley said.