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Cooperative Extension Fact Sheet FS1318

Maintaining COVID-19 Safety Practices: Guidance for Food Pantries

  • Cara Cuite, Assistant Extension Specialist, Department of Human Ecology
  • Lauren B. Errickson, Director of Rutgers Gardens and Campus Stewardship
  • Stephanie Brescia, School of Graduate Studies
  • William Hallman, Professor, Department of Human Ecology

Food pantries face increased demand that is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. At the same time, they need to ensure the safety of staff, volunteers, and the clients they serve. To do this, they may have to change their distribution practices to maintain social distancing, while also addressing changes in who is volunteering, who needs their services, how and what is being donated, and where they source food.

The following suggestions about how to maintain services while keeping volunteers and clients safe are based on recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), current protocols that are working well at many pantries around the country, and the current scientific understanding of COVID-19 prevention.

NOTE: This guidance may change over time, and should be adapted to best meet the mission, needs, and circumstances of a specific pantry.

Staff, Volunteer, and Client Safety

Ensuring the safety of those who provide and receive services is a priority.

Food Distribution

Consider methods that shorten client service times and that limit unnecessary face-to-face interactions.

Sourcing Food

Many traditional food sourcing methods/supply chains have been disrupted. Alternatives to consider include:

Maintaining Food Safety

Food safety is especially important at this time.

Signature Waivers and Other Flexibilities

Pantries may need to change their record-keeping practices in order to maintain social distancing. USDA has addressed this issue and made other modifications.

Providing Education and Cooking Demonstrations

If you have a website or social media presence, you can link to nutrition education and food safety videos and webpages for clients with access to the internet. Some sources include:

Serving New Clients

With increasing rates of unemployment, many pantries are serving first-time clients who may have never used the services of a food pantry and may need additional guidance.

Providing Clients with Additional Resources

Pantry clients, especially those who are newly unemployed, often need additional services with which they may be unfamiliar.

If You Cannot Open Your Pantry

Some pantries face limitations related to available space, volunteers, and quantities of available food and may not be able to provide services. If it is not possible to serve clients, please:


Thank you to Donald Schaffner, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor at Rutgers University, for his input on the food safety advice provided here.

Thank you to the following individuals who provided invaluable insight into the current practice of food pantries, as well as comments on this document:

Rutgers Against Hunger addresses food insecurity throughout New Jersey, bringing together the resources of Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey to increase awareness of hunger, encourage education and service to tackle hunger, stimulate research to assist those in need, and provide immediate relief through food drives and other events to raise money and collect food for providers throughout the state.

April 2020