Here’s how Pa. food banks are dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak – and what you can do to help

Volunteers serve meals at a Pittsburgh soup kitchen. (Image Source: US Air Force via Creative Commons.)

This story was updated at 4:10 p.m. on Friday, March 13 after Gov. Tom Wolf announced that Pennsylvania schools would close for two weeks. 

State officials are asking Pennsylvanians to avoid crowded spaces and group gatherings for the next two weeks to help slow the spread of COVID-19, a novel disease that had been found in 33 residents as of Friday afternoon. 

That’s easy enough for Pennsylvanians who can work remotely or get groceries delivered on demand. But it’s much harder to do if you rely on a school, food bank or soup kitchen for a daily meal. 

Nonprofit leaders say they’re preparing for a rush of demand for food assistance in the coming weeks as the COVID-19 outbreak shutters schools, businesses and other workplaces across Pennsylvania. 

While they have to change the way they package and serve food to their clients, hunger-prevention advocates say they won’t let the outbreak slow down their operations. 

“Our work is even more important than ever,” Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, told the Capital-Star Friday. “It’s always critical, of course, but we do believe COVID … is going to lead to increased need.”

That influx could start next week, when Pennsylvania schools will enter a two-week shutdown under a directive from Gov. Tom Wolf. 

State Department of Education data show that 54 percent of Pennsylvania’s 1.7 million school children – 958,000 students – qualify to receive free or reduced meals at school.

State education officials say they’ve received federal clearance to serve meals off-site, but it’s up to each individual school building to coordinate feeding times and locations.

Nonprofit leaders expect some of those children and their families will show up in their soup kitchens and food pantries. But they also expect their numbers to swell as business slows in the retail, service and entertainment industries, leading workers to lose hours and wages.

“This wave will continue well beyond this immediate period where people are isolating themselves and practicing social distancing,” Kristen Rotz, president of United Way of Pennsylvania, said. “There’s going to be economic consequences that flow back for months to come.”

Arthur said the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, which distributes food to more than 1,000 soup kitchens, food banks and community organizations in 27 counties in Pennsylvania, is currently well stocked with healthy, nutritious food.

That’s thanks in part to the US Department of Agriculture, which was authorized to purchase more than $1.4 billion of U.S.-produced food products last year from farmers who were affected by trade disputes.

But the food bank is ramping up its cleaning schedules and reducing the size of its volunteer groups in its Harrisburg headquarters to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, Arthur said. 

Volunteer shifts typically have 30 to 40 people working at one time, Arthur said. But as state officials call on Pennsylvanians to limit large-group gatherings, the food bank is limiting its groups to 15 volunteers or fewer. 

They’re also asking volunteers to sign a form stating that they’re in good health. 

The new protocols mean that volunteers and staff will be working round-the-clock to package food for distribution, especially since food assistance agencies have seen a precipitous drop in volunteer ranks.

Jane Clements-Smith, executive director of Feeding Pennsylvania, said organizations in Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania are struggling to staff their soup kitchens and food pantries as more Pennsylvanians are home-bound by quarantines and care-giving obligations.

At the same time, Clements-Smith said, food providers are scrambling to implement new methods for serving food and cleaning facilities so that they can minimize opportunities for the COVID virus to spread. 

Some of those changes have been difficult or costly to put in place. Clements-Smith said many organizations are have had difficulty buying cleaning supplies amid widespread shortages; others are stretching their budgets to buy boxes and other packaging materials for food.

The new protocols also require some bureaucratic legwork, since many federally funded food service programs have strict requirements on how food is served and who can receive it.

Clements-Smith said some organizations have obtained waivers that will let them serve patrons who might be temporarily out of work, or let them offer take-out options at feeding sites.

Both nonprofit executives said Pennsylvanians could offer help by sending cash donations to food pantries and soup kitchens, or by signing up for a volunteer shift if they’re healthy and not elderly, immuno-compromised, or otherwise at high risk of contracting the disease.

“If you are healthy and you can safely get to a food bank, we’re asking them to reach out and help,” Clements-Smith said. “[Non-profits] definitely need all the help they can get.”