Episode 4: The food bank employee helping to get food to people during a pandemic

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Courtesy photo. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

Courtesy photo. (Photo illustration by Natasha Vicens/PublicSource)

You've seen the footage of the cars in lengthy lines for food bank distributions. Now, hear what it's like on the ground during a pandemic. On this episode, an employee of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank tells us how they are working to safely get food on the tables of those in need.

JOURDAN HICKS: The scenes from food distribution sites across the Pittsburgh region are striking examples of how this public health crisis has become an economic one.

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CLIP: “It’s just so hard for so many people to be out of work. I’m not sure how this is all gonna end up.”

JOURDAN HICKS: Twenty-two million Americans have filed for unemployment in the last four weeks. At least 1.3 million of those are Pennsylvanians.

CLIP: “You know, because you expect that you would never be in a situation like this. And there would not be so many layoffs in the area that you would even need to be at a food bank.”

JOURDAN HICKS: Without jobs, there’s less money -- or no money -- to put food on the table.

CLIP: “It's is very important to me and my family. And, you know, we're making it work.”

JOURDAN HICKS: The pressure is on for food banks to provide for a flood of people in need.

Food banks are an important resource even on the best of days. But with the coronavirus pandemic, their role in providing a basic need -- essential to survival -- has taken on new urgency.

Can they sustain the increase in need? According to reporting from the New York Times, food banks across the country are facing funding shortfalls. Feeding America is the nation's largest network of food banks, with more than 200 affiliates, including the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. It has projected a $1.4 billion shortfall in the next six months alone.

On today’s episode, we’ll hear from one employee at the Pittsburgh Food bank about what his job has been like lately. That’s after this break.

FUNDRAISING CLIP: Hi, I'm Andy Kubis, the producer of this podcast. Like a lot of you, I'm going on week four of barely interacting with people in real life. I miss the world. But working on this podcast allows me to keep talking to people; hearing their voices makes me feel connected to the city, to people again. It's more important than ever to hear from our neighbors, to actually hear their voices at a time when social isolation means we're hearing so few. Newsrooms across the country are laying off staff and making cuts. But PublicSource is trying new things and they're bringing you more reporting and more voices like the ones you hear in this podcast. They can't do it without your help. If you like what PublicSource is doing and you have the means, please consider becoming a member for as little as five dollars a month. The website is publicsource.org/donate. Thank you for listening.

BRENDEN KERR: I'm Brendan Kerr and I work at the Pittsburgh Food Bank.

Probably about five weeks ago, it wasn't even a meeting, it was just the end of the day. I think I had my jacket on and none of us knew where this was going. But I think that we all expected that it wasn't it wasn't going to be over fast.
We were steeling ourselves for something.

And I was standing in the doorway of our CFO, his name is Bart, and I just wondered out loud: How do you make this decision? If it's a question between bringing a large number of people together in the midst of a deadly communicable outbreak into a proximate space--if it’s a question between that and denying people food. Like, how does anybody make that decision?

Luckily, it's not a purely black and white situation, but at at its heart, that dilemma is it the essence of all the innovation, all the hours of work that has gone down over the past month.

I mean, the good news is that our network of agencies, pantries and soup kitchens has remained strong. Of the 225 pantries in our 11 county reach, only 6 percent of those have closed. But even with our pantries, the need has skyrocketed. We've seen a seven fold increase in the number of people who come directly to our facility in Duquesne for food.

NEWS CLIP: The need is obvious. As Monday you can see the line of cars trying to get to the Duquesne facility for food. The COVID-19 pandemic is taking jobs away and putting people in unprecedented financial situations. The food bank has held four emergency drive-up distributions so far, giving away some 265,000 pounds of food. With the region bracing itself for the next two weeks, the food bank expects to give away even more.

BRENDEN KERR: We've got 115 employees; almost everybody is still coming into the office. We all wear masks. We all practice social distancing. As of this week, we've started taking temperatures of everybody who comes into the building and that job is mine now. I am the temperature-taker.

About a month ago, we stopped having volunteers into the building. We have such an active and wonderful volunteer corps, but it didn't make sense to have different people coming in each day. We've got probably 18 National Guard [members] who are there each day.

NEWS CLIP: When the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency made the call to the National Guard to come in and help, the mission was gratefully accepted.

NATIONAL GUARD: “We're ready for this. We’re trained for it.”

BRENDEN KERR: They're great. They come in and get right to work.

NATIONAL GUARD: “I work in a high school, so I was out of work. And to be able to get back up on my feet and serve and help the community out, it feels great to and I'm really excited to be here.”

BRENDEN KERR: They're packing our emergency boxes. We've got a line setup, basically an assembly line. We push the box down some rollers and fill it. Each section has cans. There are runners who take care of cardboard and it just moves very, very fast. Each emergency box holds 25 pounds worth of food. We have three different kinds. We have dry, shelf stable; we have fresh, which holds produce; and we have frozen. Since the National Guard has gotten there, we're turning out about 4,000 emergency boxes per day. It's a pretty cool process.

We've created three new positions. We call them COVID Concierges. A hundred percent of their time is answering phone calls. Ninety percent of the of the calls that come into the COVID Concierge are people looking for food help.

CLIP: “I’m a school bus driver and I've been out since March 13th and need help. I've got two little ones.”

NEWS CLIP: Happening now in our area, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank is distributing meals to those in need. During the pandemic, Chris Hoffman is live in Duquesne, where they just opened up the line to cars. How's it looking out there, Chris?

BRENDEN KERR: There's that drone footage that people may have seen. And it's and it's emotional to a lot of people there. There are miles of cars of people waiting to get food.

NEWS CLIP: Good afternoon. The first cars are going through. But take a look at how many cars are in line here. They go all the way down south Linden Street. So we can't show just how far this goes because pretty much all the way back to 837, which is almost a mile down the road. That's how many people are out here. Double-file lines. According to the food bank, the first people they got here at 7 this morning. So five hours ago…

BRENDEN KERR: I mean, the most remarkable thing is how grateful and positive people are after waiting in line.

CLIP: “We were down here first like around, 7:30. But they do help out families that are like going through a rough time right now.”

CLIP: “Pittsburgh is awesome. Pittsburgh is awesome, I’m just saying. We do the darn thing. We do. When it comes down to it, we really put forth doing great things for people in Pittsburgh.”

BRENDEN KERR: Usually we have enough food allotted to each distribution so that everybody gets served. But there have been a couple distributions where people have had to be turned away. And even those people have been saying, thank you. It's remarkable. It's stunning.

CLIP: “We’ll be all right. We'll get through it together.”

BRENDEN KERR: There was a lot of concern when we started doing these distributions, how hard would it be to tell people we're just giving one box each of dry, frozen and fresh --one box per car? And what if two households came in the same car? What if people carpooled? But we had set up this rule, one box per car. That way we would serve the most people. There was a debate about this and there was a lot of anxiety about how to tell people that we're limiting the amount of food we're giving them. But there was very, very little conflict on that issue when it actually played out.

It's pretty amazing to see a lot of people who never expected to be in that situation showing great graciousness.

I've been very much doing the thing that's right in front of me. I've not been feeling a lot of feelings. I think a lot of times when I get numb like this, it's because I'm angry and I'm not comfortable feeling angry. But I think that I am. There is a lot of anger that is sort of cutting me off -- about the way that this is being handled and about how unnecessary a lot of it is.

One of the many things that we're learning is, is there's only so much that we can distribute it each at each of these events. So how much do we publicize them? We'd never before tried to do a drive-up distribution model. We'd never tried to serve people in their cars before. We never thought that we would have to socially distance when handing people food. It's all been an innovation and with any innovation you make your best shot and then you get feedback and you adapt.

Lisa Scales, our CEO, has a history of of disaster response work.

LISA SCALES CLIP: “when you're responding to a natural disaster, you're coming in after the disaster has happened and it's localized to one or several communities.”

BRENDEN KERR: She went down and led a team in Katrina. She was in New York after 9/11. She’s been through this before.

LISA SCALES CLIP: “This is a national pandemic, a global pandemic. And we're responding in the midst of this crisis and a crisis that is growing and the resources are limited. So we're concerned that we won't have enough food to provide all they need.”

BRENDEN KERR: And the meetings are very, very solution-based. Even when people within the room have different ideas, there might be a second where...because, I mean, this is tense stuff….there might be a second where emotions get high or raw and it turns so quickly. I mean, I've worked in several industries and in none of these places did I feel like people were as nimble and as committed to addressing the problem rather than dwelling on the fact that there is a problem. And I think that largely comes from the leadership.

My days do tend to blur together. The hardest moments for me or when there's internal strain. And that's never between people. It's just somebody is having a hard time. And you can tell. We all have to keep ourselves healthy or we can't help anybody.

The pharmacy that I've used for the past five years has limited hours and I've been working long days and I haven't been able to get there to get my antidepressant filled. And I just kind of let this go. And I live alone so I don't have anyone to nag me about these things or to point out that I could just call my doctor and have them switch the prescriptions over to another pharmacy. So four or five weeks go by and I'm not taking my pills. I just woke up this morning and realized this is not good. This is not good. So I called the doctor and everything got straightened out in five minutes. But it's hard -- the long hours of work and the isolation at home is a brutal pair and important things do get pushed aside and forgotten.

Behind all of this, there's this threat that not everybody thoroughly understands. I mean, scientists understand it. Doctors understand it. None of it's good. I feel like that's the sort of like the blunt instrument that makes us feel all the simmering concern. It's not that we're self-interested and we only are worried about ourselves. It's that tension and that fear is what awakens the simmering and underlying awareness that we live in each day of how big the need is and and how we don't see an end to it.

The good news is that people have been extremely generous. Today I had a little quiet time and I volunteered to help out stuffing thank you letters to individuals who have donated in the past five days. I was given a stack of 200 letters and those just covered surnames that began with letter E to the letter G. Just E to G, two hundred letters in in five days. And people are thinking about us and it means a lot. Because we need it.

And after all of this, we're preparing for a recession for who knows what sort of duration. And who knows what effect that will have on charitable giving. And so it's kind of like racquetball: we take our best shot and then immediately get ready to react. Just doing what's in front of me and watching old movies.

The message that I want to leave people with about the food bank is that these mass distributions that you see on the news are not the only way to get help.

They are intended to be a supplement to SNAP, to our network of pantries, to the Grab and Go meals from Pittsburgh Public Schools. You can go to our website - www.pittsburghfoodbank.org and click on the Get Help link. Also, I'd like to encourage people to make use of United Way's 211 service. They're able to connect callers with food help, but also with services that are able to address more complex needs.

JOURDAN HICKS: On April 18th, Governor Tom Wolf announced nearly $60 million in funding for food banks across the state, following reports that food bank usage in Pennsylvania had tripled since the coronavirus outbreak began.

This podcast was produced by Andy Kubis and edited by Mila Sanina and Halle Stockton.

If you have a story you’d like to share, please get in touch with us. You can text a voice memo to 412-432-9669 or email it to jourdan@publicsource.org.

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