By Jody DiPerna
Pittsburgh Current Lit Writer
Though the Food Bank asked people not to come before 11 a.m. there is already a long queue of cars stretching down South Linden Street when I pull into the volunteer parking lot around 10:15 a.m. I am issued a pair of freshly washed Uline work gloves and a yellow safety vest; volunteers who arrive without masks are given those, too.
While we assemble and wait, the volunteer next to me is eating his own breakfast. “I woke up this morning and I fed the kids breakfast—I got a Red Bull and Snickers,” he laughs. “This is not healthy at all.”
COVID-19 presents a whole host of obstacles for getting food to people in need, but the Food Bank is learning on the fly, creating new models in the age of contagion. At this, their main site in Duquesne, they were able to coordinate with the police and PennDot to set up efficient logistics.
“The chief of police from Duquesne came to help us build a model to make sure we had what we needed to operate safely and direct the flow of traffic where it wasn’t overwhelming to the community. We’re learning as we try to pilot these things in other communities,” Justin Lee told the Current via telephone. Lee is the Chief Operating Officer of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, an organization that serves 11 western Pennsylvania Counties, some as far flung as Somerset, Greene and Armstrong.
At the moment, it is easier to control virus variables with monetary donations through the website. That money flows through operations here and out to about 365 different agencies, partners and community organizations. They are a powerful buyer with a large coverage area. By purchasing in bulk and through their various partnerships, they say they can turn one dollar into five meals. Lee points out that under normal circumstances, they love food drives because they are a really gratifying way to get people involved while providing assistance. For now, though, the fewer hands that touch the product, the better.
One of the ways they are trying to make food delivery safe, for both the volunteers and the individuals and families receiving food, is to load pre-packed boxes and bags into cars. These boxes are packed by regular staff, the National Guard and some freshly hired temp workers who were furloughed from other work. According to Lee being able to provide a few jobs while increasing their efforts to feed the region felt really good.
It is an unseasonably hot day and it is vital that the frozen food not sit out in the sun. It needs to be loaded out to the sidewalks moments before volunteers can get it into the cars. While we wait, volunteer coordinator Kelly Schlick reminds us all to smile behind our masks. Even with the distance, we want to make connections.
Grant Avenue is a four-lane road with a wide sidewalk dividing the east and westbound lanes. There will be two lanes of traffic heading west and each lane will load ten cars. The sidewalks already have pallets of the dry food boxes spaced about six feet apart. The forklift driver loads out the frozen pallets with such speed and precision, it feels like he’s playing a video game. It’s impressive.
For volunteers like us, the job is simple. Ten cars are let into the chute. We load a box of dried goods and frozen goods into each car and another volunteer loads a bag with produce (milk, eggs, pears and cheese today). Once all ten cars are loaded, Adam, who is on traffic duty, waves them through. There is a police officer next to him to direct traffic from there. Another batch of cars comes into the chute and we repeat until we’ve loaded food into more than 860 cars—all the cars that showed up. We had enough for many more.
What makes this unlike other times is how restricted contact is. A few times, people start to get out of their cars to open the trunk or something, but we have to firmly tell them to stay in their cars.
There are hoopties and high-end SUVs, but most cars are more mid-range. The people inside are couples with kids and single people and folks with their dogs. They are white and black and Latino and Asian. They are old and young and middle-aged. I can’t help but notice the disproportionately large number of cars with UBER and LYFT decals, an indication of just how hopelessly insubstantial and tenuous the gig economy is.
Even before COVID-19, the Food Bank stood as a bulwark against food insecurity, or lack of access to enough food for an active and healthy life due to economic hardship. More simply put, when members of a household are uncertain about meeting basic food needs, that is food insecurity, the webs of which spill out to affect individuals and communities in all sorts of harmful ways.
What kind of impact does it have to make a choice between buying food or keeping the lights on? Do you risk eviction to feed the kids? Do you re-up that asthma inhaler rather than buy groceries? Food insecurity forces families to grapple with life and death decisions and creates fertile grounds for life-long mental health issues.
Food insecurity is one of the markers in a test score known as ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences), along with things like abuse, domestic abuse, community violence and neglect. According to the American Psychological Association, children with high levels of exposure to these kinds of adversity are more than four times as likely to develop anxiety, depression, PTSD and substance abuse disorders by the time they reach adulthood than children who have not experienced these forms of adversity.
As to food insecurity specifically, the Department of City Planning for Pittsburgh reports that more than one out of every five Pittsburghers (21.4%) faces food insecurity. That is significantly higher than the national average of 12.3% or the average for Allegheny County, which is 14%.
But those are pre-coronavirus numbers. We don’t yet have good data on the number of households newly facing food insecurity, as so many more people are unemployed than previously. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer report on April 6th, one in six Pennsylvanians has applied for unemployment compensation benefits.
What the Food Bank, their partners and other community organizations face is a two-pronged devil of a challenge: how to meet the increased need while maintaining healthy and the safe distances required by this exceptionally communicable virus. They’ve been running this drive through donation event weekly in Duquesne, but there is a pressing need to increase the amount and frequency of distribution of badly needed food. They have to take this show on the road.
Four days later, we’re in the employee parking lot opposite PPG Paints Arena. Being April in Pittsburgh, if we needed sunblock on Monday, we all could have upped our coat and hat game on Good Friday. It is in the low-30s and there are nasty gusts of damp wind swirling around us.
This is the first such event here and the Food Bank has received an assist from the Penguins. The police are funnelling cars into all of the open lots to wait; those cars will be released into a chute on Fullerton Street, very similar to Monday’s event.
Today, there is no produce, just the frozen and dried goods.
“Before COVID, we had a very strong focus as an organization to move in the produce direction, just from the health standpoint and what we wanted to focus on,” Lee said. “We are still distributing produce. It’s not as intensive as it used to be, but we’re still trying to distribute that, as we get more efficient and get a better understanding of the flow.”
You don’t have to meet any criteria or prove need or even residence to come and receive food. Working here fosters a deep sense of shared humanity and understanding. We all know that for some, accepting help is hard. This system — drive up and get some food — cuts out any bureaucracy that could lead to people being too ashamed to come. All that is required is a car and a bit of patience. [It should be noted that there is a tent set up for walk-ups at the main site in Duquesne.]
A younger guy stops to talk to one of the TV crews, which are legion. He tells them that he’s picking up for family members. He’s okay, but he knew they needed it and waiting for three-hours in his car seemed like the least he could do.
We don’t have hard data on who is receiving donations and what demand will look like as the nation continues to respond to the threat of coronavirus. We do know that the need for food is increasing at lightning speed.
“We’re still learning what the need is and how we can respond,” Lee said. “The number I’ve calculated for purchase orders we’ve placed in both March and April totals about $1.7 million dollars. That same period in March and April last year was about $600,000.00 or so. It’s over a million dollars more in product.”
“Stay safe, stay home,” my volunteer partner says as she loads boxes. As a group, we will provide food to about 1,300 cars today. Combined with the numbers from Monday’s event, more than 2,150 people will have gotten food from the Food Bank in just two days.
Most of the drivers wave at the line of volunteers as they pull away. Some give us the thumbs up through their sunroof. Some blow kisses behind the windshield. A woman in a stars and stripes hijab waves a hand-made cardboard sign of thanks as she passes through.
One woman opens her window to tell me happy Easter. Then she gives me a level, old-school Pittsburgh look and says, “No ham, though.”