WEST WARWICK — More than 200 families visited Be The Change/ Project Hand Up Sunday afternoon, each leaving with a grocery haul valued at around $100.
“As you could imagine, we are as busy now as anyone could possibly be,” said Coreen St. Jean, who founded the nonprofit in 2017 with the goal of ensuring no one ever has to choose between eating and paying bills.
On an average afternoon prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Project Hand Up would serve a little more than 100 area families, of whom between 20 and 30 were typically newcomers.
Of the 218 families who visited Sunday, 85 were using the food supplemental program for their first time.
“So that’s a big hike,” St. Jean said Tuesday, adding that she “absolutely” attributes the spike to the number of people now out of work because of the pandemic.
“And I think it’s going to continue,” she added.
With salons, barber shops, gyms and entertainment venues statewide ordered earlier this week to close down and restaurants told last week to halt all dine-in service, the unemployment rate in Rhode Island has skyrocketed.
“There are so many people out of work who can’t afford to go to the store,” St. Jean said, “and we’re doing everything possible to make them as comfortable as they can be once they get here.”
For a $3 donation per bag, Project Hand Up shoppers are invited to stock up on whatever they need from the non-perishable, or “unlimited,” section. The organization also offers daily specials on meat that it purchases itself, as well as a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Shoppers are currently limited to filling two bags from the non-perishable section, although St. Jean said that may need to be adjusted if the grocery supply does begin to deplete.
At this point, however, the organization has plenty to cater to the sudden surge in shoppers.
Inside Project Hand Up’s brand new 9,000-square-foot facility on Factory Street, in fact, St. Jean estimates that these days she has more food on her shelves than some major grocery retailers do.
“People are in very big need of food, and grocery stores are running very low,” she said. “People have to eat.”
But even as grocery stores have seen food flying off of their own shelves, donations to the organization have remained fairly consistent, St. Jean said, with the bulk of its supplies coming from Ocean State Job Lot.
“Job Lot has been here almost every day to deliver food to us,” she said.
Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Roch’s Fresh Foods have continued to contribute to Project Hand Up, as well, and Chipotle Mexican Grill has also kept up with its regular donations of rice, meat and chips.
On any given day, St. Jean said there’s still sufficient produce, dairy items, breads and meats available.
“We figure those are really the basic needs at this time. As long as we have that, we’re in good shape,” she said, adding that Ocean State Job Lot is currently supplying most of the bread for her organization since many of the usual bakery suppliers have shuttered.
The dry goods section is a bit lower than usual, she added, and there are typically some paper goods, including paper towels, although those tend to go quickly.
There’s no toilet paper in stock, St. Jean said.
To accommodate the uptick in visitors, Project Hand Up has opened its doors for extra hours, and St. Jean and her volunteers have taken several precautions to ensure everyone’s safety.
Only 10 visitors are allowed into the building at one time, and they’re asked to wait inside their vehicles for their turn. Carefully measured-out markings on the floors show shoppers where to stand in order to follow social distancing guidelines; volunteers wear gloves and face masks, and hand sanitizer is being used liberally.
St. Jean added that the six-foot rule is being strictly enforced.
“It’s not just for the public safety, it’s for our safety,” she said. “I have a responsibility to keep my people safe, too. And as long as we’re well, and not sick, we can all still be here to open.”
A half hour each week has also been dedicated for senior citizen shoppers.
“I know how important it is for them to stay well,” St. Jean said. “We’re doing whatever we can to get them in and get them out before the rest of the public comes in.
Hours currently fluctuate by day, depending on the food stock, but Project Hand Up has been opening on Tuesdays from 1 to 5:30 p.m., and on Thursdays at 1 p.m. for seniors only, and from 1:30 until 6 p.m. for everyone else.
Last week, the nonprofit also opened on Friday and Sunday.
As long as she and her volunteers are able, St. Jean said she’ll continue to open the doors to Project Hand Up.
“As long as the food comes in and I have volunteers to run this place, we’ll be here,” she said.