With the NHL season suspended, the Pittsburgh Penguins and their food service provider Aramark suddenly found they had 2,000 pounds of perishable food on their hands. So they called the folks at 412 Food Rescue who assigned a volunteer to pick up the food and deliver it to a place in need.
Officials there and at the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank say the demand for their services is certain to spike due to the COVID-19 crisis.
With bars and restaurants closed, and events big and small being canceled, there is plenty of surplus food that can be distributed to agencies that serve the hungry, says Sara Swaney, senior director of advancement for 412 Food Rescue.
“We’re also getting calls from the Pirates and the Convention Center. No one has ever experienced anything like this. It’s an uncertain time for everyone,” she says.
412 Food Rescue uses a cadre of volunteers, called Food Rescue Heroes, who pick up donated food and take it to nonprofit organizations that serve the hungry. Swaney says her agency has about 2,100 active volunteers and more will be needed.
“The amazing thing about this community is how people are stepping up at this time,” she says. “People just want to help. But we’re going to need more.”
Brian Gulish, VP of marketing and communications for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, agrees that more people will experience food insecurity because of COVID-19. “It’s all hands on deck right now. In our last food distribution, we provided food to 550 families. We anticipate that going up, obviously,” he says. “More people are going to be out of work.”
The food bank is using extra precautions as volunteers load boxes of food for families, making sure the workers are six feet from each other and washing their hands regularly. When families picked up food on Monday, workers devised a drive-through operation so no one had to get out of their cars.
“We’re playing this hour by hour, minute by minute. It’s the new normal,” Gulish says.
The food bank serves 400 agencies in an 11-county area, but Gulish says that food supplies are not an issue, at least not yet. “One (donated) dollar can provide five meals because we buy in bulk,” he says. “But we do need donations. There always will be that need.”
Both agencies are exploring ways to deliver directly to someone’s home, rather than having it picked up at a warehouse or community center.
Swaney notes that Pittsburgh Public Schools is providing grab-and-go meals for students while the district is closed, but some children may not get their meals for a variety of reasons. “We’re trying to work with the schools to make sure the kids are getting their meals,” she says. One possible solution? Have boxed lunches taken to bus stops.
Swaney says she is struck by the enormity of the challenge but is buoyed by the spirit of cooperation she sees. “You realize that this is something that affects every single person out there. So many people are impacted, businesses closing, people working from home. This really shows how we all need to work together to address this situation.”