It’s amazing how much the world can change in a week, with COVID-19 now impacting every aspect of our lives. We are doing our best here at the Food Bank to balance the needs of the community with the health of our staff, volunteers and clients. While we have been involved in disaster relief efforts in the past, most recently in 2011 with the flooding in Broome and Tioga Counties, the rules of engagement are completely different in a pandemic. There is no playbook or decision-making matrix to reference, and we are left trying to make the best possible decisions with the information we have. Sometimes, there’s no perfect solution, and decisions get harder as time goes on.
On March 18, we made the difficult decision to cancel volunteer shifts in our facility. This came less than a week after we put out a call for more volunteers to pack emergency food boxes. The response from our community was incredible; we went from 5-7 registrations per shift to nearly 40! In five days, those volunteers packed more than 1,200 senior food boxes, 2,340 family food boxes and bagged up 17,000 lbs. of oranges.
However, as the days passed and schools shut down and more businesses were ordered to close, we felt that the risk of having 100-300 people in and out of our building each week was too great, despite the precautions we were taking. We came to the realization that if our main priority is to continue our operations for as long as possible, we need to make sure that our employees are healthy and able to come into work for as long as possible. The truth is, if one of our employees contracts COVID-19, we will most likely need to close for several days and during that time we won’t be able to distribute food to anyone.
We simply cannot allow that to happen.
On the same day, we also decided to cancel our Mobile Food Pantry (MFP) distributions for the rest of the week in order to deliver more food to our partner agencies and to distribute food boxes to our Senior Mobile Food Pantry sites.
We are re-evaluating our MFP schedule for the next few months as well as our distribution process. We are working with partners in each county to determine the best way to distribute large quantities of food to people in need without putting volunteers, staff and clients at risk of contracting the virus. We hope to have a plan in place by Friday afternoon, March 20.
We are exploring the idea of establishing distribution hubs in each county where we can drop off 12-16 pallets of food that can be packed up by small groups of volunteers and delivered to people in need. We are grateful to Tioga Opportunities and the Owego-Apalachin School District for stepping up as the hub for Tioga County. We hope their operation will serve as a replicable model for other counties.
Times like these highlight the critical nature of our work as well as the generosity of our community. While my team and I are operating at full speed on most days, we remain inspired by the willingness of so many people to help in both large and small ways. This is what gives me hope that we will get through this challenge together and come out stronger and more resilient than before.
Until then, please know that the Food Bank is here to make sure that people are fed, and we could not do it without your support!
Natasha R. Thompson,
President & CEO, Food Bank of the Southern Tier