Helping Neighbors in Need
We recently interviewed Jane Clements-Smith, executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania. During this time of thanksgiving we are grateful for the role of food banks in helping our neighbors in need. Listen to the full podcast episode with Jane here.
For those who are unfamiliar with Feeding Pennsylvania, please share about the program and its role in reducing hunger and food insecurity across the Commonwealth.
Feeding Pennsylvania is the state association of Feeding America food banks. There are nine food banks across the commonwealth, and we cover all 67 counties.
Sometimes there is a little bit of confusion between a food bank and a food pantry. The nine food banks that I represent are large distribution centers. We take in a ton of food, and then we rely on partners and agencies, which would be food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters, to distribute food to the clients in need. Within our network, there are about 3,000 of those partners spread across Pennsylvania.
Feeding Pennsylvania works on behalf of the large distribution centers to advocate for policies that support the people that we serve, to fundraise for those food banks to continue the programs that we serve, and also food raising, which is kind of a newer concept, but working as a network to ensure that we get access to the most nutritious food that we can offer to the folks in need.
We do everything from nutrition education with our food banks, to working with them on collective policies. We are a network.
As Feeding Pennsylvania, we are a separate nonprofit from Feeding America, but we are like a sister organization. So we also work with the larger national organization, and there are 200 of those food banks nationwide. So it's quite a network and allows us to work together on best practices and best ways of doing things for the clients that we serve.
The COVID-19 pandemic certainly impacted Pennsylvania communities this year. What has been the impact on the charitable food network within our state?
Prior to COVID-19, our food banks were serving around 1.4-1.5 million Pennsylvanians annually. I think the biggest shock to everyone was how quickly the pandemic hit Pennsylvania and how quickly so many people were left unemployed overnight because of the measures being taken to mitigate the virus.
We have the people that struggle with staying employed for many reasons. But these were people that were full-time employees and overnight lost their jobs, and yet they bills were still coming. The mortgage, insurance and more still needed to be paid, and they also needed food. We saw this drastic climb to almost two million people filing for unemployment.
As is the case for most people that face food insecurity, food is one of the last thing on the bills that need to be paid, yet food is obviously essential for life.
We saw the lines growing longer. We saw people, like I said, who have never experienced food insecurity before, and really unsure of how the network works. Some, I think, were also kind of embarrassed in a lot of ways, like, "That's really not for me, I've never needed support like that before."
On the client side it was a whole new ball game of how do we respond to this drastic increase in need? But then also for the food banks, it was looking at the way we do business, the employees and volunteers and making sure that we're keeping them safe. A lot of the food banks ended up renting extra space to do this kind of work, to try to socially distance volunteers and employees.
The typical model of getting food at a food pantry is what we call a choice model. It's similar to going into a grocery store. You walk through and you're able to pick out the items that you'd like to take.
Well, in the beginning stages of the pandemic and trying to minimize the amount of people in close contact, we moved to a boxing method. So we were looking for more shelf-stable items, and creating a food box that would allow someone to drive through, no touch, pop the trunk and put these boxes in. We had challenges with space, sourcing enough of the food, and the logistics of having sometimes thousands of people in cars lined up in a city like Pittsburgh. It was a ton of coordination, and it was rapid fire coordination.
It took a lot of working with state agencies, local government officials, and then working within our network together. I think the word unprecedented has probably been overused, but I can't think of a better word. Nobody could have anticipated these things happening. We're on the front lines talking to people, and obviously we're not bulletproof when it comes to the virus. It was a bit of trial and error and a huge investment to ensure the health and safety of our staff, as well as the people who were coming to receive the food.
Just to reiterate, in a typical year we serve 1.5 million Pennsylvanians annually. But during the first three months of the pandemic, we served five million Pennsylvanians.
In May, I was fortunate enough to attend a food distribution in Westmoreland County. My job is to talk about these things every day, but to be there and see the folks in need, it had a big impact on me. It was clear that there were many different folks in need. I saw folks who were clearly living out of their car, and then I also saw the ones who you just know that they had never done it before. They were almost embarrassed. I remember one lady rolled down her window and handed a $5 bill, and said, "I'm making a donation. I have never had to do this before, but my unemployment check still hasn't come. I feel guilty taking this, but I'm at the end of my rope. I have nothing left in my house."
It was highly emotional for everyone involved. That's something you miss when you see the news stories and you see the long lines. It really was a truly incredible moment for all of us.
AgChoice recently made a significant contribution to Feeding Pennsylvania on behalf of our member-owners and employees during this time. Could you share how those funds will be used and the expected impact they will have?
We're really excited. AgChoice made an extremely generous donation that'll be targeted to the food banks that are in their territory.
Something that separates some of the food banks that I work with is that we put a lot of effort into increasing the amount of healthy and nutritious food that we offer to our clients. In Pennsylvania, being an agriculturally-rich commonwealth, we do a lot of work with farmers and processors. With AgChoice’s donation, it was decided that these funds would be for Pennsylvania ag products. In Pennsylvania we’re lucky to have an agricultural surplus system where we are able to source things like meat and dairy and produce and eggs.
AgChoice’s very generous donation comes at a great time, right before the holidays, and will be used to source more Pennsylvania ag products so that people have access to fresh and nutritious food grown right here in our own state.
With Thanksgiving just a few days away, share with our listeners what you are thankful for this season, along with anything else you’d like to cover.
Well, not to be corny, but I really am grateful for all of our donors, of course. We couldn't do any of this without the generosity of so many. I'd be remiss not to mention our legislators on both the state and federal levels who stepped up to the plate too.
Personally, I have two daughters, and I am more grateful than ever for daycare and childcare workers who are making it so that I can continue to do this great work. It has been a trying year for everyone. When you focus on how we came together as a country to help those who were being impacted in negative ways by this, I think we've done pretty well and I’m so grateful to be part of that.
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