The words from the other end of the phone landed like a sucker punch, and as Sharon Ames absorbed the message, she realized she was in trouble. “This little old lady is about to have a heart attack,” Ames thought about herself.

It was early November and Ames, the executive director of the Fauquier Community Food Bank and Thrift Store in Warrenton, Va., was preparing for a Thanksgiving food drive. Six hundred families had signed up for free holiday meals, a good 150 more than usual. But now the representative from her local Walmart had called to say the store could not honor the food bank’s bulk order for turkeys. Without a supplier for the holiday meal’s main course, Ames felt as though she was letting down 600 families.

She tried not to panic. Ames dialed the local Safeway to see if they would take a large turkey order. No bulk orders, they said. Then Food Lion. No bulk orders. Giant next. No bulk orders. “But Sharon,” one supermarket representative told her, Ames would later recall. “You can still give them a gift card.”

“They can’t eat a gift card,” Ames responded.

It wasn’t just about turkey for Ames, or for many other providers feeding the millions of Americans pitched into hunger since March. The past year had seen a once-in-a-century pandemic. A manic stock market. Ten million pink slips and viral photos of cars in miles-long lines at food handouts. An estimated 8 million Americans had slipped below the poverty line since May, and more than 50 million Americans — or 1 in 6 people ― were expected to experience food insecurity by year’s end.

And that tide of need is likely to surge again soon. Without intervention from the federal government, the clock will run out on federal unemployment insurance and a nationwide eviction moratorium, leaving 12 million without benefits and 40 million renters at risk of eviction — all of which will affect food access, particularly in rural areas where food pantries are scare.

“We are expecting the need to rise significantly,” said Michael McKee, chief executive of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, a distributor that partners with more than 200 pantries across rural Virginia. “Our concern, beyond the sheer numbers, will be the ability of our partner agencies to handle that surge.”

Ames had spent nearly a decade at the food bank, bending her seemingly endless energy and cheer into feeding Fauquier County’s hungry. The past year had meant new faces there at noon for the food bank’s daily distribution, new names and backstories for Ames to remember, new requests for donations and help she never had to make before. Ames believed those 600 turkeys weren’t just another meal, but a sign of stability for families that had little of it in the past eight months.

“I made a promise,” Ames would later explain.

So after learning about her predicament, Ames stepped outside toward a whiteboard near her loading dock.

At the top, Ames had an employee write “Turkey Donation Goal: 600.”

Beneath it, she wrote the date — Nov. 11 — and the number of turkeys the food bank had now: 25.

They had 10 days to get 575 more.

‘We’re preparing for a rough winter’

Like similar organizations anchored in cities and suburbs, food banks in rural areas have seen a spike in demand since the pandemic hit in March. But rural pantries run into their own unique challenges, according to Blue Ridge’s McKee.

“The pantries we are working with are in rural areas, so they’re smaller and they rely entirely on volunteers mostly in their 60s and 70s, so when the pandemic hit, we were quite concerned about the ability of our partner agencies to stay open,” he said. “A lot of these areas, they are 40 minutes or more away from the nearest towns. Therefore, for the people in these communities, there are no other pantries nearby. They may have nothing else."

Blue Ridge’s distribution jumped from 106,000 individuals in February to 141,000 in May, McKee said. But despite the demand, coupled with the pandemic, few of Blue Ridge’s partner agencies closed down during the virus’s first wave, mainly because the volunteers recognized they were all that was standing between their clients and hunger. “We had no more than 7 percent of our network closed, whereas in other cities your pantry closure rates were at 30 or 40 percent,” he said.

“We are a microcosm of what is happening everywhere else in the world,” said Mimi Forbes, the manager of the Rappahannock Food Pantry in Sperryville, Va. “We have about 7,000 people in the county, but we serve 10 percent of the county. We’re the little pantry that could.”

The coming months, however, present new problems. “The demand is really increasing,” explained Lois Shaffer, the director of operations at Page One food pantry in Page County, Va. “We’re preparing for a rough winter.”

Experts say the winter months typically push more people into hunger: Seasonal work ends, and colder temperatures drive up utility costs. This winter, however, arrives as a deadlocked Congress fails to offer a new relief fund and as rising coronavirus cases threaten new shutdown measures.

Another issue facing all food providers involves securing meals. Both urban and rural food networks have seen donations drop, forcing food banks to dip into their own budgets to purchase food that usually would be freely given.

“We are down 63 percent in donations,” said Catherine Hassinger, the director of community services for the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington, which distributes food to 21 counties in Virginia. “Some of this is donor fatigue, that’s my guess. A lot of households that were struggling, then a lot of the jobs that were furloughed have become permanent layoffs. As we look at these coming months, we have a food budget for all of the fiscal year, but we are almost out of it already."

Overcoming ‘country pride’

Shaffer’s food pantry in Page County, Va. — where state records show 19.6 percent of the population is food insecure — has kept the shelves stocked, thanks to state and local grants, as well as money from the Cares Act. Other income sources have been less conventional.

“Our thrift stores are packed full,” Shaffer said. “One good thing about the pandemic is people have been at home clearing out their stuff, so we’re seeing a lot of donations, and we’re encouraging people to come buy local.”

Shaffer was still looking for the 200 turkeys she needed for the holiday. The pipelines providing food to major grocery chains began jamming up in the early days of the pandemic, and the system has still not fully recovered, which is evident in rising prices and the reluctance among chains to fill large orders.

“So we’ve put it out to the community asking for donations, and we’ve found some places where we can buy 10 or 15 here and there. We’ve gotten enough to get some through, and if we don’t have them we’ll sub in a whole chicken.”

Shirley Wheeler from the Missionary Chestnut Grove Food Bank in Appomattox County — 16.1 percent food insecure — usually did one mass distribution doing the month. But the pandemic has forced her to retool her operation, staying open longer or meeting people in the community with food.

“We are in a rural area, so transportation is a big problem,” she said. “People have to get rides the day we give out food. But now I get calls on different days from people saying, ‘I have a ride now; can I come today?’ So I have to make arrangements for that.”

Wheeler was also expecting 200 families for the Thanksgiving distribution, but she was running low on the main course.

“I have some turkeys, but I don’t have enough for everyone,” she said. “So those will go to ones that have children or have multiple people in the house. I’m trying to make sure they do have a holiday. For single people, I’m making sure they will have something like chicken.”

Forbes’s Rappahannock Food Pantry — in a county with 14.6 percent food insecurity — has been buoyed by local donations, like the older man in a cowboy hat who recently walked in the door and said he’d heard country music legend Willie Nelson say to donate to local food banks, so he had come to open his wallet.

Forbes has also forged new arrangements with local farmers; the food bank is now getting weekly milk deliveries from a nearby dairy that had been providing milk to schools before the pandemic.

Still, she said one of her biggest issues is overcoming the “country pride” of locals who resist taking the help. “There are people who have lived here all their lives, and some will come to us and say, ‘I don’t want to accept help from the government.’ Well, you are not getting help from the government. You are getting help from your neighbors.”

‘Two steps forward and one back’

It was nearly noon. A half-dozen people were already lined up outside the Fauquier Community Food Bank, each clutching a number from a dispenser like the ones sitting on deli counters. When the distribution began, the numbers would be called, and one by one each person would be led through the aisles inside to pick groceries.

Tugging on a black mask printed with the pantry’s name, Ames swung around toward the loading dock. “How many we got now?”

An employee glanced at the whiteboard topped with “Turkey Donation Goal: 600.” Eight dated entries stretched down the board to the current date, Nov. 16.

“417,” the employee called back to Ames.

“I’m not in panic mode anymore,” Ames said from behind her mask. “Last Monday, I thought, ‘Okay, motormouth, what are you going to do?’ But the community has shown up in a big way."

Ames and other volunteers blitz social media with Facebook posts and memes asking for donations. Local churches, the Warrenton fire department and police department, and schools all responded by buying turkeys and donating them to the pantry. Now 200 shy of the goal, Ames felt confident the charitable momentum that had carried the drive this far would make up the difference before the giveaway next week.

She fumbled with the door on a refrigerator truck, pulling open the latch and staring at the mountain of turkeys she had collected over the course of a week in a year unlike any Ames had seen working at the food pantry.

Somewhere in the stacked poultry was a turkey for a Warrenton woman named Teresa. (She declined to give her last name.) Next week, she would take the meat home with the rest of the donated food for her husband and their four children between the ages of 5 and 15. Since 2018, she had been making regular stops at the pantry. Ames and everyone else always remembered her name, remembered the names of her kids, and even let her pick up extra items when the family needed them.

Teresa had been stopping by more regularly since March. Her husband’s work hours had been reduced. The kids weren’t in school. “I don’t want to be weird and say that my kids need to go to school to eat, but . . ." she said before stopping. “It just feels like we’re always taking two steps forward and one back.”

On a recent stop at the pantry, she had signed up for the Thanksgiving meal.

“How important is it to have a turkey?” she said. “It’s not necessary. I want to have a Thanksgiving. But I guess this is the new normal. It’s weird. My 5-year-old will never know what it was like before all this. So is it important? No. It’s important that we eat.”