In Pittsburgh, volunteers come together to help feed region’s Black residents

Neashia Johnson scoops spaghetti into a takeout container. (Photo by Jake Mysliwczyk of The Pittsburgh Current)

By Jody DiPerna

PITTSBURGH — As area food banks race to meet increased needs for food distribution in the region, smaller organizations are stepping up to provide healthy meals in underserved and traditionally African-American neighborhoods.

“Food insecurity is not a COVID-19 issue. It’s an issue that already exists, it’s just exacerbated,” Shannon Williams, founder of the Wellness Collective, a free, community-based, volunteer delivery service, told the Pittsburgh Current recently.

And pre-coronavirus data backs that up. One in 10 Americans, one in eight Pennsylvanians, and more than one out of every five Pittsburghers struggled with food insecurity before the pandemic.

Between deliveries and planning meetings, she talked to the Current about how she and 17 volunteer drivers pick up free meals from neighborhood restaurants, such as Peoples Indian in Garfield, and Arnold’s Tea on the Northside, and deliver them to people in need who have contacted them through a hotline.

The drivers are also kept busy delivering food prepared by a collaboration between the Hill District Consensus Group and Feed the Hood.

Neashia Johnson, program coordinator for the Hill District Consensus Group, moved quickly when COVID-19 cases started showing up in Pennsylvania.

Almost overnight, she set up a grab-and-go dinner service at the Neighborhood Resilience Project food pantry on Bedford Avenue and at Community Forge in Wilkinsburg. She started serving meals the week of March 16, the same week Gov. Tom Wolf moved to shut down non-essential businesses in the state.

It was a need that was already there, but this operation was “definitely something born out of a response to COVID-19,” Johnson said.

The risk of infection, combined with the economic hardships created by efforts to flatten the curve, make for the perfect storm that endangers the lives of the most vulnerable members of our society. And as time wears on, more and more people will become economically vulnerable.

Through April 22, close to 1.6 million people filed unemployment claims with the state Department of Labor and Industry. The ripple effect of job loss will certainly result in more families cutting back on nutritious ingredients, skipping meals, or simply going without.

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Rather than provide dry goods and canned goods (known as shelf-stable products in food pantries), Johnson wanted to offer healthy, hot meals. Nutritious food is hard to come by in the Hill and in Wilkinsburg, as both neighborhoods are already classified as food deserts. She knew she wanted to feed spirits, as well as bodies.

“In this moment, honestly, I feel very grateful for the fact that I’m still able to do this work. I’m trying to do what I can because I’m okay. I can’t just stay at home. I need to do something,” Johnson said.

Johnson got in touch with Chef Carlos Thomas, most often affectionately known as Chef Los, the owner and operator of Confluence Catering. In addition to catering, he teaches cooking to kids and runs a program called ‘Feed the Hood,’ which does exactly what it says. He agreed to do the actual food services.

“As far as COVID-19, we got in the mode of what we’ve been doing over the past few years — which is just posting up somewhere and feeding the ‘hood,” Chef Los said.

He and his three-man crew (professional cooks who would otherwise be out of work) do their food preparation at Third Presbyterian Church in Shadyside in the mornings and deliver the prepared food to Neashia and her volunteers at the Hill and Wilkinsburg locations.

This past week, they made things like Salisbury steak, roasted potatoes, spinach and tomato salad, zucchini and smothered chicken. One of Chef Los’ major goals is to adapt the menu day by day based on what they can lay their hands on. “We cook what we can, but it’s important that it fits into a cohesive, nutritious meal,” he said.

Food deserts — and their impact

The lack of a full-service grocery story within walking distance (one-half to one mile) is one of the chief indicators of a neighborhood being a food desert. But there are others.

“Are there high rates of obesity? And are there transportation problems? We overlaid data for those particular things to identify neighborhoods,” Dr. Tiffany Gary-Webb, who studies epidemiology, community and behavioral health at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, said. She’s spent her career gathering data and information on food insecurity and food deserts.

She points out that city neighborhoods such as Northview Heights, Bedford Dwellings (Hill District), Garfield, California-Kirkbride (Northside), Homewood, Hazelwood, and Mt. Oliver are all food deserts, as are Wilkinsburg, certain census tracts in Penn Hills, Braddock, Duquesne, McKees Rocks, Turtle Creek and McKeesport. There are more, of course.

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“Let me say a few things about food insecurity and the link to health. One of the issues is when people have to make trade offs. Food is a necessity. If they don’t have money to buy food, or they can buy food but they don’t have money to buy medicine,” Gary-Webb said.

“It creates this vicious cycle where you don’t have money for food, you end up not buying the most nutritious food and you end up having more health complications; you need medicine and you have to trade off medicine for food. It’s this vicious cycle,” she said.

There are multiple barriers to obtaining food and goods in poorer neighborhoods. Some is simply logistics, which is to say, no nearby grocery store and/or no transportations.

“But others are not healthy enough to go. Mental-health wise, there are different mental illness barriers. There are so many invisible people in our communities. These are the people I have been screaming and hollering about for forever,” Williams notes.

Food insecurity in childhood can lead to a whole host of medical, educational and psychological problems later in life. And one in six children in America have stress around where their next meal might come from.

“Food insecurity affects your general sense of security in the world. That can increase toxic stress and from there you can go on to a whole cascade of traumas,” Dr. Daniel Salahuddin, a third-year resident in the combined family medicine and psychiatry program at UPMC, said.

There are myriad ways that lack of access to healthy food can influence the economic and physical health, but food insecurity can also present immediate dangers right now, in the time of coronavirus.

“As you have increased stress levels going through your body, cortisol is going through your body, which can also lead to a decreased immune response. So your immune system doesn’t function as well as it usually does. That has tremendous implications for COVID as it relates to varying immunity. If you’re food insecure, that’s already setting up a risk factor for someone who is already at high risk, given the initial data we have on who is being affected. It’s continuing to perpetuate the disparity,” Salahuddin said.

The impact of institutional racism

Institutional racism is a large part of the issue and contributes to the African-American community being disproportionately affected by this pandemic.

An NPR report on April 2nd showed that Black Americans have been less likely to receive the COVID-19 test than White Americans, even when reporting the same symptoms. A ProPublica report on April 3rd showed that African Americans made up almost half of Milwaukee County’s 945 cases and 81% of its deaths — in a county whose population is just 26% Black.

Food insecurity is a public health crisis within a public health crisis. It will take a long time for researchers like Dr. Gary-Webb to aggregate hard data, information vital to implementing better and permanent systems for improving health and safety. But that process takes time and time is something we don’t have right now.

Nimble, grassroots organizations that can adjust in real time are an invaluable shield against the storm of coronavirus for those communities most at risk.

When Johnson and the Hill District Consensus Group started the grab and go meal program, they got a $500 donation from the Hill District Charitable Credit Union to buy some produce and meat and other supplies. In order to keep it going, Johnson has set up a GoFundMe which she hopes will enable them to continue to feed those most in need.

Though many of those prepared meals go out via the delivery hotline, it’s gratifying to connect with people in the neighborhoods, particularly with social distancing protocols in place.

“There are a lot of people walking up who live nearby. We’ve seen a lot of older people come past. There are people who have multiple children. When people come in, they actually share some stories with us,” Johnson said.

In her poem, ‘Perhaps the World Ends Here,’ American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo writes, “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.” The Hill District Consensus Group’s mission is to build a community where residents have access to living wage jobs, affordable housing, high-quality education, and a voice in policy decisions.

But it also, and very fittingly, describes itself as the Community Table.

Jody DiPerna is a reporter for the Pittsburgh Current, where this story first appeared