As the COVID-19 virus turned into a global pandemic and hit close to home, the Food Bank had to act fast, restructuring all operations to keep staff, volunteers, and clients safe while responding to a growing need for food.
New York State announced the first case of COVID-19 on March 1. Two weeks later, schools across the Southern Tier announced plans to close, and the State mandated closure of all schools and non-essential business on March 18.
After a frantic week of packing emergency food boxes, the Food Bank canceled volunteer shifts to keep volunteers and staff safe. Our Mobile Food Pantries abandoned client choice for drop-and-go delivery and then shut down indefinitely.
“We knew that if one of our staff contracted the virus, our operations would be threatened. And we could not let that happen,” said Natasha R. Thompson, Food Bank president and CEO.
Access to food became top of mind as businesses closed and many of our neighbors lost employment. Preparing to stay home, residents cleaned local stores out of milk, eggs, bread, and meats while others without the means to stock their shelves worried.
More than half of school age children are at risk of hunger when school is not in session and kids can’t access school meals. Our local school districts stepped up, with cafeteria heroes providing breakfast and lunches for pickup or delivery.
At the Food Bank, 50% of employees began to work from home and our production, warehouse, and distribution staff shifted into high gear.
With the help of community leaders, schools and agency partners, the Food Bank established food hubs in five counties. Our trucks delivered dry goods on pallets to these central locations where small teams of volunteers packed emergency food boxes that could feed a family of four for four days.
We encouraged neighbors in need to seek out their local food pantries, who reported a 56% increase in demand. Many of our partners increased their orders and shifted their services to a drive-up model; some even offered delivery service to homes.
Food Bank staff developed a pre-registration system for our drive-thru Community Food Distributions which can serve up to 500 households in a three-hour period. Hundreds of cars snaked through fairgrounds and parking lots to receive 50-60 lbs. of dry goods, dairy products, fresh produce and frozen meats. Clients drove through with popped trunks, notes of thanks taped to their windows, mouthing “thank you” and holding their hands over their heart in gratitude.
Food supply chains became unstable, and we saw a tremendous decrease in donated product from manufacturers, retailers and growers. Our food sourcing team purchased 300% more wholesale product than usual.
We could not have responded so quickly and shifted our operations so dramatically without the incredible support and partnerships we have in our community. We will get through this together, stronger and better than before.