SALEM — COVID-19's impact on the region hit fast and hard, catching organizations off guard and forcing them to adjust to new ways of life with little forewarning.

That may not have been most fully at the Salem Pantry on Margin Street, which saw its new leader — the first full-time executive director in the pantry's 30-year history — arrive on just the second day of the crisis.

Almost overnight, food deliveries at two locations each week turned into 14 sites just for the Salem Public Schools (there are also deliveries at a couple of other sites). In addition, 10 to 12 volunteers climbed to as many as 70, and around 6,000 to 8,000 pounds of food handed out each week tripled to about 21,000 pounds weekly.

"Given that, typically, we do one-third or fourth of that in a week, it has really kind of tested our capacity," executive director Robyn Burns said. "But we're up for the challenge."

For 30 years, the nonprofit organization has almost entirely been volunteer-run. That changed in 2019 when the organization hired its first full-time staff member — operations manager Samantha Johnson — in December. By then, it already had plans coming together for an expansion of the organization, part of which included the hiring of its first-ever executive director.

Burns joined the pantry on March 24, early into the second week of the school district's COVID-related shutdown and just as the region started to shut down as well. By then, the organization was already gearing up in a way it had never done before to help handle a new type of food crisis.

"For my first day on the job ... we were in our second day of this Salem Public Schools emergency grocery assistance model that we've started," Burns said. "So we really quickly ramped up from the equivalent of two distributions a week. We went from those two points of distribution to, essentially, now 15 a week."

Burns says she was initially brought on to expand the program to reach more neighborhoods. Before COVID-19, that included an expansion into 2,800 square feet of leased space at Shetland Park, paid for by a grant from the Greater Boston Food Bank and a matching grant from the Brace Cove Foundation.

Despite the current emergency needs of the pantry's services, those original plans are still going forward, according to Burns.

"We are expanding and have expanded pretty rapidly in a slightly different way than we imagined," she said. "But it has been in a way that has intuitively worked for us."

It has worked for the city of Salem as well.

"Given that (Burns) was new, what she mobilized was pretty incredible," said Kerry Murphy, the city's health and wellness coordinator. "They're at all 14 of the Salem school sites right now. We're in constant contact with them for grocery deliveries for people who can't leave their homes."

Now, the food pantries — Salem Pantry among them — are "working together really well to divide and conquer," Murphy said.

"The fact that they're able to provide a week of groceries to the families as the kids come up to receive lunches has been huge," she said. "If they weren't able to do what they're doing right now, it would be pretty devastating."

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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