Pet Pantries Meet Rising Need During Pandemic

Animal shelters and rescue groups offer food for family pets.

Volunteers staff the Animal Welfare Association's drive-up mobile pet pantry in New Jersey.
Volunteers staff the Animal Welfare Association's drive-up mobile pet pantry in New Jersey.

Animal Welfare Association

It’s been nearly a year since the pandemic took hold of almost every aspect of life. As many people have struggled to feed their families, pet pantries have stepped up to help fill the increased demand for four-legged family members.

While people can get canned goods and non-perishables from typical food pantries, they can pick up dog and cat foods and other necessary supplies from pet pantries. The need for aid has increased since spring of last year.

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) alone has distributed more than $1 million in relief funding to more than 130 animal shelters, pet rescue groups. and horse rescue organizations across 48 states during the COVID-19 crisis in order to help keep people and their pets together, Kirsten Peek, HSUS spokesperson, tells Treehugger.

“Many of these organizations used the grants to bolster their pet pantry programs to better address the needs of pet parents in their respective communities,” she says.

Forming Partnerships to Help Others

The onsite Pet Pantry at the Animal Welfare Association in Voorhees, New Jersey was created eight years before the pandemic. In addition, since 2018 they have partnered with a local food bank in Camden, New Jersey, for a monthly pet pantry. The organization increased support in early 2020 in response to COVID-19 because the need was so great, Executive Director Maya Richmond tells Treehugger.

“We began offering an onsite drive-up-grab and go pantry for anyone. Our food bins are filled in the a.m. and people take what they need,” she says.

Before COVID-19, the organization's on-site monthly pet food pantry supplied food to more than 65 families and another 50 in Camden City. Now they are regularly feeding more than 280 pet families a month.

They also formed a partnership with 10 other nonprofit agencies across their region to help get food to more pets in need. 

“We secure pet food, we coordinate delivery to the other agencies, and they distribute to pet owners,” she says. The agencies are diverse and include churches, a police department that helps homebound residents, and a children and family services agency.

To take advantage of resources that might be wasted, the organization formed a partnership with one of the area’s Amazon supply centers so they’re able to get access to a lot of the pet food that they’re unable to distribute.

“The issue we face is manual labor. We have to pick up and store 10-30 pallets at a time. That is a lot. We don’t have staff or storage,” Richmond says. “We use grant funds to help rent a lift truck and some movers. A donor provided us a storage unit.  We can sort, and manage the relationships but the overall labor is hard for a team that has been cut back due to limited cash donations.”

Sharing Resources

The Humane Rescue Alliance in Washington, D.C., opened its pet pantry in January 2018 to provide free pet food to local residents who have financial need. The food is intended to ease the burden associated with pet care, Lisa Damiano, the pantry’s coordinator, tells Treehugger.

They’ve seen a steady increase in clients throughout the year.

“As the need for pet care assistance grows, many clients have spread the word to family and neighbors about the program. In some months during 2020, we doubled our distribution volume from the year prior,” Damiano says.

They’ve also started to offer extra items to clients such as collars, leashes, and puppy pads, when requested.

The pet pantry operates on a mobile basis with all distribution events held outdoors for safety. Pet owners enroll online and are given an identification card that they use when they pick up items. They can stop by once a month to collect food and supplies for their pets.

The Humane Rescue Alliance established a partnership with a local church, area food bank, and county officials in nearby Prince George’s County, Maryland, where community members have been hit hard by the pandemic, Damiano says. They distribute human and pet food on a regular basis.

“There is always a need for more donations to support a program like our Pet Pantry. Even so, we have been very fortunate to receive many small and large in-kind donations during the pandemic,” she says.

Community members often contribute either by directly dropping off items or by purchasing them through the organization’s Amazon Wishlist. They’ve also received several large donations through organizations like Greater Good Charities and directly from some manufacturers.

“Smaller, more rural animal welfare organizations seem to have less access to these types of large-scale donations and are struggling even more to meet the needs of their clients,” Damiano says. “For this reason, when HRA receives a large donation from Greater Good Charities, we offer to share the donated food with small rescues and humane societies in the region. In an upcoming donation we will be sharing our donation with 19 organizations.” 

The organization holds seven or eight events each month around the city, and distribution is often difficult in some locations due to COVID restrictions and the limited availability of volunteers.

“We've seen increased demand and more clients at all events since the pandemic began, but we've had to enforce social distancing and mask requirements, which creates an extra layer of work and anxiety among some clients (and volunteers). It is also difficult for volunteers to socially distance from one another and still serve the public effectively at these events. Some of our most experienced volunteers have stayed away from volunteering completely due to health concerns.”

Adding More Pantries

The Cedar Valley Humane Society in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, opened its pet food pantry at the shelter in 2019, and also began providing pet food through mobile pantries, program director Hannah McFarlane tells Treehugger.

In 2019, the organization served 1,727 pets through the pantry at the shelter and 19 mobile locations. In 2020, once the pandemic hit, that number skyrocketed to 10,382. CVHS distributed 72,674 pounds of pet food through the shelter pantry at the shelter and 81 mobile pantries. 

"Our community is struggling right now and sadly people will choose to go hungry, so their pets stay fed," McFarlane says. The shelter partnered with local organizations throughout Cedar Rapids and the surrounding area for more mobile pet food pantries to help provide a bigger reach, serving areas in three counties.

"Drive-thru pantries alongside 'people' food pantries have allowed CVHS to reach more pets and their owners while maintaining social distance and safety guidelines. With hopes to not only impact the lives of pets and pet owners but the community as a whole, CVHS continues our effort to help those in need." 

If you need help with your pets, call your local animal shelter or rescue group or visit the HSUS for more resources.