Statewide stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of coronavirus are making it even more difficult than usual to find food in Philadelphia.
America’s poorest big city already had some of the area’s highest rates of poverty and food insecurity. Now, under a lockdown mandated by the governor, many people have lost their incomes and have even greater difficulty putting food on the table.
Nonprofits and government programs have rallied to the rescue. Church-based and secular groups of all kinds have pivoted to focus on supplying food. Many volunteers have signed on to help out.
Government programs including the Food Access Collaborative and a special fund to subsidize food banks are also making a difference. Many of these efforts focus on senior citizens, who are at risk of hunger and at greater risk of complications from Covid-19.
Beyond helping individuals, some efforts have focused on propping up the food supply chain by making sure corner stores and other food sellers have enough. Altogether, a web of government and nonprofit efforts are combining to face the onset of overwhelming need.
“Our biggest issue right now is the supply and demand” Samantha Retamar, spokeswoman for Philabundance said in a phone interview. “the issue that is happening on the manufacture level where manufacture cannot keep up with the demand of food across the world.”
PHILADELPHIA’S HUNGER PROBLEM
Even in the best of times, nearly one in four Philadelphia residents is food insecure, according to the city’s Food Access Collaborative.
What is more, the problem is getting worse. According to the Philanthropy Network of Greater Philadelphia, hunger and food insecurity in Philadelphia has risen 22 percent in the last six years. The rest of the region and the nation have seen decreases over that time.
About 400,000 Philadelphia residents live below the poverty line, according to the PEW Charitable Trusts. This number has almost certainly risen as businesses have shut down and unemployment has increased dramatically.
Philabundance is the largest hunger relief organization in the Delaware Valley. In a phone interview, spokeswoman Retamar, said the nonprofit’s workload has jumped far above usual.
“We serve about 90,000 people a week,” Retamar said; “30 percent of whom are children and 16 percent are seniors. That was before COVID-19 — and so now we’re seeing an increase in need across the Delaware valley.”
NONPROFITS WORKING TO PROVIDE FOOD
There are more than four thousand nonprofits in Philadelphia according to the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy. 53 percent of them are secular, and the remaining faith based. All these nonprofits have been helping different categories of people in diverse spectrums of life.
Since the beginning of the crisis many nonprofits have had to suspend their activities due to the lack of funding, according to an article published by the Inquirer’s Stephan Salisbury. As a consequence, many Philadelphians have found themselves lacking places to eat free meals.
As a response, a couple of food relief organizations, such as Philabundance, Share Food Program, and others have multiplied efforts to feed as many families and individuals as possible.
Philabundance relies on more than 350 members including food pantries, emergency shelters, soup kitchens and other social service agencies. This network enables the nonprofit to reach as many people as possible in every community.
In Kensington, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, Rosalind Pichardo, founder of Operation Save our City, has been helping as a volunteer. She has gone from advocating for victims of gun violence to volunteering to cook for homeless people at Prevention Point. Now she helps serves food to people in need in the open air.
Operation Save our City is mobilizing volunteers to serve the food provided by a collaboration between Wawa, 12th Street Catering, Hamilton, the city of Philadelphia etc.
“That’s what is needed down here,” Pichardo said. “You Know because everything is closed down because of COVID we have to find a way to serve the people. This is how we have to do it.”
Pichardo said that they serve about 515 lunches on a daily basis at Reach and Clearfield Street. Anybody can take lunches away at no cost.
In Northeast Philadelphia, Oxford Circle Christian Community Development Association (OCCCDA) has been helping with food so far. The nonprofit has been helping vulnerable families in Oxford Circle community of Philadelphia and surrounding communities in zip codes 19124, 19111 and 19149.
Magaly Hernandez who works for OCCCDA wrote in an email that the nonprofit has fed over 100 families for the last two weeks.
Staff at Oxford Circle CCDA has been coordinating the efforts along with volunteers from Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.
OCCCDA has also partnered with other local churches such as By Grace Alone Church in Frankford in terms of sharing food resources. The nonprofit has been receiving food from food banks so far.
“We have been able to receive food from The Philadelphia Share Food Program with the help of Representative Jared Solomon who has helped deliver the food,” Hernandez said. “We also received some extra grocery bags from our partner Mennonite Central Committee and Material Resource Center in Harleysville who provided groceries on a monthly basis even before this crisis.”
Another nonprofit, Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, PCA, has made available sponsored senior centers for free food. The organization has been providing grab and go meals, home delivered meal or commodity box access to senior citizens.
PCA has food pick-up sites in 20 zip codes in North Central, Northwest, Northeast, West, Southwest and South Philadelphia.
There are hundreds of other free meal services helping to feed food insecure citizens since the beginning of the pandemic in Philadelphia.
CITY GOVERNMENT EFFORTS TO PROVIDE FOOD TOO RESIDENTS
The city government has been working hands in hands with communities and nonprofits around Philadelphia to make sure residents, including students and seniors, are fed.
Amara O’Connell, an AmeriCorps VISTA in the City’s Office of Homeless Services, has been an integral part of the food access response to COVID-19. In a phone interview, she said the number of residents looking for meal and other wellness services has increased significantly. The increase is due to the fact that thousands of residents have lost their income, she said.
To encourage nonprofits’ efforts, the city government have made resources available to them through the PHL COVID-19 Fund. Mayor Jim Kenney announced the fund on March 20 during his press conference, NBC10 reported.
The PHL COVID-19 Fund is the fruit of collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Foundation and United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. 67 other partners and contributors have contributed to the fund so far.
The PHL COVID-19 Fund deploys grants and resources to assist charitable organizations “navigate near- and longer-term challenges and ensure that critical resources remain available for those in the community who need them most,” according to the fund’s official website.
Through the PHL COVID-19 Fund, the city has made available eight million dollars to be distributed to nonprofits that apply to the grant.
“It’s super easy to apply,” O’Connell said. “and they try to get the money out quickly so that organizations continue to help those in need.”
To meet the high demand of helping people during the crisis, the city of Philadelphia has partnered with Philabundance and the Share Food Program to open 40 additional free food sites across the city.
The effort monitored by the Office of Homeless Services aims to provide food insecure residents with fresh and healthy edibles. The collaboration brings the total number of food sites to 80.
“Those food sites are open twice a week,” Retamar said. “Especially on Monday from 10 a.m. to noon, then on Thursday Philabundance and Share distribute fresh produce like banana, apple, cabbage, onion, and things like that to help people stay fed longer, have nutritious meal and not go out often. That’s what we’re doing on the Philadelphia level.”
While hunger relief organizations manage to get food available, the city of Philadelphia manages the distribution line. They provide with manpower, warehouses to package the food and makes sure to have volunteers available at different food sites to distribute packages to residents.
The partnership between the city government and community organizations aims at feeding more essentially school children.
The city has contracted with some of the large distribution centers in Philadelphia to arrange for school meals to make food available for children who are out of school. They are able to go to distribution sites around the city on the weekend and throughout the week, O’Connell said.
The 80 food sites established around the city serve vulnerable families, children and seniors.
Homeless people who do not have access to a kitchen also have a chance to have free meal throughout the week according to the office of Homeless Services.
“We have made available two outdoor meal sites for homeless people” said O’Connell. “One in Center City and one in Kensington that are serving Monday through Friday. In both those sites they are serving over 1600 meals a day combined.”
Despite the efforts by the government and nonprofits to distribute food to the most vulnerable, some residents say they are not satisfied with the way food is being distributed.
When Share Food Program dropped off 750 boxes of food to Philadelphia’s so-called most vulnerable on Saturday, some people said they were marginalized.
Jim Riggio and Patricia Tann, both from Philadelphia, wrote on Messenger that most people were being ignored by food distributors. Some people, they said, cannot leave their homes to go to food pantries for fear to get sick.
“Who do they consider the most vulnerable?” Riggio asked. “Always about certain areas and not everyone!” He wrote.
“I’m disabled and didn’t get a box.” Tann wrote on Messenger.
EFFORTS TO HELP FOOD SELLERS AND ADDITIONAL FUNDING TO FOOD BANKS
The Food Trust is not a food distribution organization, but they are equally helping out with food. The organization is assisting not only low-income residents but also those who are able to afford grocery shopping get nutritious and affordable food.
Since the outbreak Food Trust is making sure corner stores, grocery stores, farmer’s markets and other essential food related businesses in Philadelphia have healthy and affordable food available for residents to buy. They are backed by the city government as well.
Sandra Sherman, the Nutrition Advisor for the Food Trust at One Penn Center accepted to be interviewed via telephone. During the interview, she said that in this moment of crisis everybody, not only low-income folks, needs help when it comes to food.
“People need food,” Sherman said.” They need to be able to go shop; so, we put a lot of control into place to make sure that farmers can sell the food they grow because they need to be able to sell it.”
The Food Trust is working to make sure there is food available to farmer’s markets. The nonprofit is also making sure people are social distancing while at the markets with handwashing tools available.
The Food Trust is also assisting small corner stores and supermarkets by providing neighborhoods’ residents with financial incentives to purchase food in those local shops.
“People go to the stores to get food for free and we reimburse the stores,” Sherman said. “But we have to get the information from the stores to know how they’re being cashed. So, we’re working with the stores to know how we can help them, not just the individuals.”
The organization receives federal funding in addition to the support from the state and the city.
This governmental effort to assists philanthropic nonprofits is helping them to get close to the communities and provide them with the resources they need, Sherman claimed.
In addition to the city government’s Fund, Wawa established the Wawa Foundation COVID-19 Emergency Food Distribution Fund on March 20.
The $250,000 contribution aims to help food banks or qualified 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations that are providing services to local communities.
Eligible organizations are those that support food distribution efforts in Wawa’s service areas in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, Florida and Washington, D.C., according to the Wawa foundation’s website.
17 nonprofits from Pennsylvania including Philabundance, Boys and Girls Club of Philadelphia and Greater Valley YMCA have received the grant so far.
Speaking on behalf of the city government, O’Connell said that the city recognizes how hard nonprofits have been working to assist people who need help in the communities. So, joining forces, she said, would help even more people amid the crisis.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” O’Connell said. “A lot of organizations already do the work we need to be doing, so, again, we’re just trying our best to support them.”