Reflecting on 2020; Looking to 2021
By Beth Burrell
2020 has been a year of challenges – job loss, COVID mitigation efforts and social injustice. Amidst it all, more people than ever before have been left wondering how they would keep enough food on their tables.
At the beginning of COVID-19 entering our region in mid-March, we held a distribution at our warehouse in Duquesne that had so many people turn out that not only did we have to continuously bring out more food from storage to serve everyone who came, but also backed up traffic for nearly three miles to McKeesport. This is when we knew for sure the need in our region was greater than we had ever before experienced.
Since then, we’ve worked alongside our network of partners with social distancing guidelines in mind to shift our operations to meet the need in our region. These efforts resulted in new ways of operating long-standing programs and new programs being developed. Many of our food pantries were forced to shift from a model that allows individuals the ability to choose their groceries to providing pre-packed boxes to their families.
One of our partners, South Hills Interfaith Movement (SHIM) provides a snapshot of what our agency network across the region has faced this year.
“The need increased in our area dramatically overnight. We are seeing many people for whom this is their first time finding themselves in this position,” shared Jim Guffey, executive director, SHIM. “We were always a pantry that allowed people to be able to make selections. Because of COVID, we had to orchestrate everything to move distributions outdoors with a pre-boxed type setup where people can either walk-up or drive-up to get food. Adding to the challenges we faced are the people we serve who have dietary restrictions or are among our foreign-born and refugee population – both of these groups need different types of food that the food in the pre-packed boxes might not be fitting. Then there’s a group of people who could not get out of their home to get food, so we started delivering it to them.”
On-site meal programs that once served hot meals in a cafeteria-type setting are now packaging meals to go and offering pick-up times.
“For some of the people we serve here, this might be the only meal they eat all day. It’s heartbreaking and hits me even harder when I see kids coming through knowing this may be their only meal. It’s a blessing to be in the position to provide these meals.” – Vann Rutledge, Rainbow Kitchen Community Services.
At the Food Bank, we’ve developed drive-up distributions serving hundreds of families in the matter of an hour or two as well as Doorstep Delivery, a new home delivery program designed to reach our most vulnerable neighbors with no other way to get help with food.
As a result of the tireless efforts of our entire network, much of which is operated by volunteers, we’ve been able to distribute enough food for tens of millions of meals across our 11-county service area.
Beyond COVID-19, the death of George Floyd shed a new light on the social injustices that happen across the country on a daily basis. Far too often, communities with a majority of Black and Brown residents are food deserts – communities that lack easy access to stores with an adequate variety of healthy, reasonably priced foods. As an organization focused on the food security of all southwestern Pennsylvanian’s we took a stand and committed to working to ending social injustice. Through this commitment, we created our Food Justice is Social Justice initiative. This initiative enables us to collaborate with social justice organizations and amplify their voices through our website, social media and Food Podcast channels. Beyond this effort, we are committed to working to ensure easy access to healthy, affordable food for all of our Black and Brown neighbors.
While 2020 has provided a variety of challenges, it has also highlighted the best of our community – the volunteers who continued to serve regardless of the personal risk, the stories donors have shared with us about their experiences with food insecurity and the joy in receiving what some might consider the simple things.
“I had a person who I delivered food to and the husband who is very ill and loves butter called me back and talked to me about the butter because they haven’t had it for so long. From the food we were able to give them they were able to have toast with butter on it and eggs and that just meant so much to that senior who is so sick that it made his week. It’s those kinds of things that when we are able to go to the store and buy what we want, we don’t think about what butter means to someone who loves it but can’t afford it.” – Joyce Davis, Lincoln Park Community Center
As we look back at this past year, we are honored to have had the privilege to stand alongside the community in ensuring all of our neighbors have enough to eat. As we look forward to 2021, we remain steadfast in that commitment. Thank you for your support of our neighbors facing hunger. Together we will ensure all of our neighbors have access to enough food for today, tomorrow and a lifetime.