Cereal, peanut butter, pasta, sauce and other essential household staples are inside the brown cardboard emergency food boxes.
But it’s innovative “outside-the-box” thinking and “extremely generous” acts of charity that are powering and placing the ingredients inside.
“The innovation that is happening—we are leveraging all opportunities, and it takes a lot of infrastructure to meet an immense challenge,” said Joe Arthur, executive director of the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. “But we want folks to feel confident that, if they need help, the food is going to be there for them.”
The “immense challenge” Arthur’s talking about is the sudden, unprecedented spike in families who need help putting food on their tables amid the COVID-19 pandemic’s simultaneous economic crisis.
Every day, the food bank is packing and shipping 5,000 boxes of food throughout central Pennsylvania—enough to fill four tractor-trailers. In March and April, the food bank distributed 4 million additional pounds of household staples, compared to the same two months in 2019—that’s 45 percent more food.
Serving a 27-county area, the food bank supplies a network of soup kitchens and food pantries with boxes of shelf-stable boxed and canned goods that normally find their way into the hands of 135,000 central Pennsylvanians. But, under our “new normal,” the need has escalated to 175,000 residents.
Supply chain issues and higher prices for shelf-stable foods are compounding the situation. However, Arthur said fresh foods are actually readily available and being distributed to those in need—albeit due to the drop off in demand from restaurants and schools.
“Right now, because of our produce contacts, we’re positioned to acquire an immense amount of produce from the surplus coming into the port of Philadelphia, as part of a produce co-op that we and 24 other food banks across the mid-Atlantic pulled together,” Arthur said. “It’s become a significant operation over the last two years.”
Thanks to the infrastructure in place, this co-op—the Mid-Atlantic Regional Co-op (MARC)—is creating tens of thousands of family-sized boxes containing produce that doesn’t require heavy refrigeration, such as potatoes, carrots, cabbage and onions.
The MARC is managed by Feeding Pennsylvania, the state association overseeing nine food banks, including central Pennsylvania’s.
In the first month of ramped-up COVID-19 operations, the MARC supplied nearly 100 truckloads of produce boxes to 18 regional food banks, including in this region, according to Corinne Foster of Feeding Pennsylvania.
The brand new U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families Food Box Program will begin distributing boxes of fresh produce, dairy products and cooked meats in late May and early June. Program contracts are being established with farmers. One of the first local growers to sign up is Lancaster Farm Fresh, a co-op of Lancaster County growers.
“Looking forward, we’re expecting this to be a long period of high food insecurity, and, as the federal household stimulus and relief dollars are depleted, we’re expecting an increase in the number of people we serve,” Arthur said, calling April’s unemployment figures “devastating.”
The food bank’s typical annual operating budget is $16 million, underwriting the distribution of 50 to 60 million pounds of food.
“We’re adding probably 10 million pounds of food on top of that… and that’s just to get through June,” said Arthur. “We are about $2 million above normal expenditures due to the crisis response… and we are using some of our own reserves saved over the years. This crisis is that big.”
Arthur is thankful for “extremely generous donors” such as Giant Foods, PNC Foundation, Highmark Health and Capital BlueCross.
Sizeable corporate donations coming into the overarching Feeding Pennsylvania include those from Pennsylvania Skill and PSECU. Additionally, PA Pork donated 90,000 pounds of pork products.
Statewide, the number of Pennsylvanians served by food banks has increased by about 65 percent. Foster wasn’t able to provide exact figures or answers about how the organization will continue to keep pace with the demand for food.
“We are getting several donations from partners, plus grants, and we’re working with government agencies to get relief funds,” Foster said. “However, this won’t be enough to cover additional costs. We need to urgently remind supporters this is an ongoing pandemic, and we need their help with financial donations. Our food banks need help now more than ever.”
Two of the region’s largest nonprofit funders—the Foundation for Enhancing Communities and United Way of the Capital Region—partnered to establish a COVID-19 Community Response Fund to help curb hunger, with donations culled from the Hershey Company, Highmark Health and private donors.
One of the Harrisburg-area distribution points for those life-sustaining, 25-pound brown boxes is the Salvation Army Harrisburg Capital City Region. Social-distancing, drive-through procedures are in place.
“We are seeing a record number of new folks, who have never used our services before—more and more folks who have lost employment, as well as small business owners, from all walks of life,” said Kathy Anderson-Martin of the Salvation Army.
In the first four weeks of crisis operations, the Salvation Army distributed food equivalent to 130,835 meals. To put it in perspective, that’s the amount of food they distributed under typical circumstances over six months, last year.
The numbers demonstrate the growing need. Food distributed over the first seven weeks amounted to 188,000 meals—equivalent to 10 months’ worth of food, last year.
Between 60 and 65 percent of the 1,700 households being served have never needed the faith-based charity’s food box program before.
There are positive signs of hope and charity. “Rescue food” gleaned from restaurants, grocery stores and other sources have nearly doubled from the amount normally collected, said Anderson-Martin. Over the course of a typical year, the organization rescues more than 100,000 pounds of food.
Recipients are “very appreciative, very grateful,” she said. “The thing that bothers me greatly is seeing people who want to work but can’t—that’s tough.”
Aside from nourishing food, another item being distributed nourishes the soul.
“Our mission addresses body, mind and spirit,” said Anderson-Martin. “We offer everyone a Bible, and these days, nine out of 10 people are saying ‘yes.’ We’ve distributed over 2,000 Bibles—English, Spanish and children’s Bibles. Some people call back and thank us for that, more so than the food.”
To contact The Salvation Army Harrisburg Capital City Region to see if you’re eligible for food distribution, call 717-233-6755. For more information, or to make a donation, visit pa.salvationarmy.org/harrisburg-pa.
Anyone within the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank’s 27-county coverage area can locate feeding programs by calling the nonprofit’s helpline at 877-999-5964. To donate or volunteer, visit centralpafoodbank.org.
To learn more about the COVID-19 Community Response Fund or to make a donation, visit tfec.org/covid19.