This story is part of a series that looks at how local small businesses and organizations have been impacted by COVID-19.

Since 2016, GoPacks has been fighting food insecurity in Washington County by providing students with nutritious food during the school weekends and breaks, while working to increase families’ resources and support networks. While food insecurity is a concern faced by many local families year-round, the closure of public schools this March paired with substantial job loss during the COVID-19 pandemic left many wondering where their next meal would come from. Although some schools quickly announced extensions of their lunch services, others ceased operations until the next school year.

To meet the growing need from the community, the nonprofit had to adjust their operations. The GoPacks approach is divided into two steps – providing access to consistent, nutritious food, and helping to build a family’s resources so that it doesn’t continue to face food insecurity.

Executive Director Heather Warner with packs ready to go

“We have had to greatly increase our food distribution, going from providing food for two days a week to seven days a week for our students,” explained Heather Warner, GoPacks’ Executive Director. “At the same time, we have had to suspend the majority of our resource building activities due to the virus.”

In order to ensure the health of our volunteers, we have had to decrease our in-house volunteers to the bare minimum.

Warner said it has been increasingly difficult to obtain the large quantities of healthy food they require each week in order to meet their nutrition guidelines. “Many of our supplies are facing shortages on items,” she said. “Most are not accepting special orders during this time and some are limiting the number of products per transaction. Where we can place orders, they are only fulfilled about half of the time!”

Another challenge has been operating with limited volunteer labor. As a volunteer-based organization, weekly volunteer hours are typically in the double-digits. “Sorting food, packing bags, and offering resource-building events are all very labor-intensive,” said Warner. “In order to ensure the health of our volunteers, we have had to decrease our in-house volunteers to the bare minimum.”

The GoPacks program thrives on relationship-based programming. During a normal school year, the organization hosts a number of events and opportunities to connect with families. While the pandemic has been a time of isolation for many, Warner said GoPacks has been able to connect with families more often, who may have otherwise had scheduling challenges that prevented them from participating in events more often.

“Since the pandemic began, we have been distributing food once a week. This weekly schedule has allowed us to strengthen relationships with our families, particularly the ones who are only able to attend a few events a year,” she said. The additional interaction helps volunteers better understand the challenges each family faces and reinforces their relationship moving forward.

One relationship that has blossomed during the pandemic is a new collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club of Washington County. “The Boys & Girls Club has been helping us with our weekly food distribution by delivering to our families who do not have transportation, or whose work schedules do not allow them to come by to pick-up,” Warner said.

Despite a decrease in volunteer hours, GoPacks was able to assist Marietta City Schools in distributing academic packets and information to students and families. “By providing the elementary school packets with our GoPacks food bags, parents are saved a trip to the schools, and the schools are assured that families who cannot get to the schools and may not have the ability to download the information online, receive the packets,” said Warner. With social distancing measures in place and many families taking extra precautions to limit outside contact, one less trip out was appreciated.

“In addition, we have been connecting parents with various community resources as needed and helping other groups such as AVI Foodsystems, Marietta College, and the Washington County Health Department with the distribution of flyers and information,” said Warner.

This outpouring of support has been both heartwarming and crucial.

In return, Warner said the support they’ve received from the community during this time has been amazing. “Both veteran GoPacks supporters and new supporters have reached out, donating money, food, and networks to ensure that our local children are fed during this unprecedented time,” she said. “This outpouring of support has been both heartwarming and crucial, as we have seen our food budget more than triple since the pandemic began.”

Unable to host physical events, GoPacks made the decision to cancel its largest fundraiser of the year: the GoPacks Top Chef Challenge. Instead, they are relying on donations of food and funds to meet the growing demand. Each month, the organization posts a wish list of nutritious items on their Facebook page that can be dropped off at the First Presbyterian Church in Marietta, OH.

Financial donations can also be made through the organization’s website. Supporters can sponsor a student for a semester ($60), for a full year ($120), or choose a donation of another amount. Every donation helps GoPacks address both the physical and behavioral effects of food insecurity in Washington County.

Warner said she is continuously impressed by the community’s ability to step up during this time of great need. “We cannot thank the MOV community enough for their wonderful support.”