Going through the drive-thru took on a different meaning at Badger Prairie Needs Network last week.

The food pantry launched curbside pick-up for patrons on Thursday, March 19, as a way to still provide families with the food they needed, but also reduce exposure to the COVID-19 illness.

In the days and weeks prior, BPNN leadership had decided to close the pantry to the public, as well as cancel bi-weekly community meals through the month of April as COVID-19 cases continued to rise.

Karen Dettinger, a member of the leadership team who works as an industrial engineer, helped to quickly create the new drive-up model to distribute food.

Previously, Dettinger said guests were allowed to come into the food pantry, which is arranged and decorated like a regular grocery store and choose their own items. To keep everyone safe and healthy, Dettinger said staff developed a new model of curbside pick-up.

While at times there were over two dozen cars lined up outside the pantry on March 19, the only real hitch in the transition to curbside distribution was the pouring rain.

Marcia Kasieta, executive director of Badger Prairie Needs Network, estimated that BPNN had prepared enough packages of food to feed 150 families ahead of the first curbside distribution day, with volunteers still preparing more packages during the pick-up. She said 297 people across 83 households were served by the end of the first day of curbside food pick-up.

“As this goes on, we estimate the number of households needing our help will climb around mid to late April,” she said. “It’s strange – we are prepared to help many more people, but yesterday (March 23), only 12 households came over – dramatic swings.”

Hundreds of canvas reusable grocery bags, paper grocery sacks and boxes that normally hold reams of copier paper currently fill every surface and storage space inside the BPNN building. Lining the tables of the free community meal room and the children’s playroom, and packed into every fridge and freezer available, are pre-packaged bags and boxes of goods, enough to provide each family with two weeks’ worth of food and other essentials.

The leadership team tried to choose a variety of essential items for each package including fresh fruits and vegetables, frozen meats and bread. Under this model, guests’ special needs such as allergies and intolerances could not be accounted for.

As the state government still required accounting of the pantry’s patrons despite the ongoing crisis, a registration table was set-up in the front entryway to BPNN. As cars lined up, volunteers brought one member per household into the building at a time to register their family. Then, volunteers hauled a cart of food to that individual’s vehicle before inviting the head of household in the next vehicle to come register.

“It is chaos, but it’s controlled chaos,” Kasieta said. “The chaos is diminishing, and we’re down to systems and communications materials already.”

Park Printing provided signage that helped direct traffic and orange traffic cones helped keep an orderly queue. Volunteers provided printed instructions to each vehicle explaining the process. The pantry will continue distributing food curbside during its regular business hours.

It is currently in need of more reusable grocery bags and empty copier paper boxes.

“Are you impressed?” Kasieta asked. “Because damn it, you ought to be.”