By Paula Ebben

PEABODY (CBS) – A Peabody food pantry is putting laid off restaurant employees back to work. They’re distributing food to people hurt by the quarantine and it’s a seamless fit since the restaurant workers already know about proper food handling.

Thursday was another very busy day at the Citizens Inn, Haven From Hunger food pantry as people hustled unloading trucks and packing boxes with food. It’s only gotten busier since the coronavirus changed everything. Demand for food has skyrocketed.

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“Our new registrations are up 400% from normal over the last two months,” said Kate Benashki the meal program director at the pantry. The pantry relies on volunteers to get the important work done, but many of them are elderly, so most at risk.

Some didn’t feel comfortable being around so many people. But then, a brainstorm. The pandemic has pushed a lot of people who work at restaurants onto the unemployment lines. So with the help of generous grants, the pantry hired 10 food service workers who had lost their jobs. It was a perfect fit. “They have knowledge of food safety and food safety practices, so they can just jump right in, dig into the task at hand without missing a beat,” Benashki says.

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People like Kaitlin McKenna who was just about to start a new job a couple of months ago. “Two days before I was supposed to start, this happened,” she said. And she was out of work, but was quickly hired here. “I have to tell you, it has been one of the best experiences of my life,” she added.

Meaghan Gorman had to go part time at the Salem restaurant where she worked, and has made up some of the lost hours here. “It’s a lot, but it’s rewarding. It’s helpful and I like it,” she said.

Many of the new hires say they’ll come back as volunteers after they return to their restaurant jobs. “We’re all working together, and that’s what we can do,” said Justin Raboin who was also furloughed from his restaurant job.

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The long term hope for the food pantry is that older volunteers will one day return, and that new volunteers will step up to help.

Paula Ebben