How the Greater Cleveland Food Bank has transformed the way it distributes food during Covid-19

By Ken Schneck

Kristin Warzocha, President and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Food Bank, says like pretty much any nonprofit, the organization had to adjust quickly when Ohio Governor Mike DeWine issued the state’s Covid-19 shutdown order in mid-March.

“We executed our disaster plan,” she told the participants at Cleveland Leadership Center’s virtual “The Way Forward” leadership series last week. “Truth be told, we did not have a pandemic section to our disaster plan.”
 
Within the first few days of the shutdown, more than 1,400 volunteers canceled their shifts and many food pantries closed their doors. The food bank immediately began meeting with its disaster team, which consists of about 45 of the organization’s 150 employees, and developing HR policies to keep its workers safe. Then the Ohio Association of Food Banks, which the Cleveland Food Bank is a member of, asked DeWine to call in the National Guard to help with food distribution.
 
“Within a week, he agreed,” Warzocha said via Zoom. “You may see the National Guard over my shoulder walking by. We have 65 of them deployed to the food bank. They’re doing every job that our volunteers once did and then some, since we’ve identified needs along the way.”
 
To help address soaring need during the shutdown and the economic crisis that followed, the food bank quickly set up its first drive-through food distribution on Thursday, March 19th. For years, the organization had been offering a monthly produce distribution at its North Collinwood facility, serving about 900 families on average. With normal food distribution disrupted, they knew this was the safest, quickest and easiest way to get food to people who need it.
 
“We focus on fresh produce because it’s so important to a healthy diet,” said Warzocha. “Not a lot of our partners in the immediate neighborhood have access to as much fresh produce as we can take. They don’t have the refrigeration capacity. We had one coming up on the third Thursday in March and we realized we couldn’t pull those people into our warehouse safely. Many of the people who attend those distributions are senior citizens. They come with canes and walkers and oxygen.”
 
The drive-through distribution was supposed to be a one-time event, but when more than 1,200 people showed up, the staff knew they had to keep going.
 
“We knew that one was not going to be enough, so we decided to do it again the next week,” said Warzocha. “By the next week, we had traffic copters hovering over our parking lot because the traffic was backed up for miles in every direction. Cleveland police essentially ended the line for safety purposes because people couldn’t get out of the neighborhood. We served 1,700 families that week.”
 
Since then, the food bank has moved its weekly Thursday afternoon distributions to the Muni Lot downtown – what Warzocha called “the biggest parking lot in town” – with the help of the city of Cleveland as well as national guard volunteers. They requested and obtained a waiver from the federal government so that volunteers didn’t have to collect as much information from recipients, limiting the amount of in-person contact and potential virus transmission. At its peak, the food distribution has served as many as 3,600 families, and on Thursday, June 11th Warzocha said they again served 1,700 families.
 
“That’s why we continue to do this on a weekly basis – the need is there,” she said. “The demand is there.”
 
A well-oiled machine
 
During a recent Thursday afternoon distribution, cars and trucks form a single file line at the eastern entrance to the Muni Lot. Each vehicle passes through several checkpoints, first starting with the yellow-vested volunteers greeting the drivers through their masks and confirming their pre-registration. The volunteers then mark the driver side window with numbers or letters and wave them on to the next station where a dozen National Guard members spring into action.  
 
Buoyed by a 90s playlist blasting nearby—The New Radicals’ “You Get What You Give” seems to put a spring in everyone’s step—the service members quickly eyeball the code on the window, grab the correlating huge boxes of produce, dairy and other food items, and load them into the backseats or car trunks, wherever the boxes can fit. Wishing everyone a good day, the guardsmen wave the cars straight through to the exit back onto Route 2, the well-oiled process complete. 
 
Since mid-March, the food bank has distributed over half a million more pounds of food and served twice as many new families as they did at this same time last year. The Muni Lot distributions, which will continue throughout the summer, have averaged 2,000 cars per week. The food bank also distributes backpacks of food to help support youth who are no longer receiving free or reduced-price lunches from their now-closed schools. That, too, has risen, from 4,500 bags per week to 9,100 since the pandemic began. 
 
“I don’t think we ever could have anticipated what would happen and what we would see,” says Karen Pozna, the food bank’s director of communications and special events.
 
One thing that helps is that Ohio sports a robust food bank system, with 12 facilities across the state that have been in operation for decades. With coordination from the Ohio legislature and the Governor’s office, farmers and vendors across the state have a longstanding relationship with the food banks, enabling Cleveland’s operation to rise to meet an elevated level of demand.

“Not all states have the same kind of working relationship,” explains Pozna. “It’s a win-win for farmers and food banks, especially now.”
 
The food bank projects a 30 percent increase in expenses for the current fiscal year, largely due to the 1.8 million more pounds of food that they have had to purchase in 2020 to offset the losses in donated food. Their annual Harvest for Hunger campaign, where supermarkets collect donations on their behalf and local companies coordinate donations, did not yield even a fraction of their normal bounty due to the stay-at-home order. Fortunately, they’ve been able to fill the gap through increased corporation donations and a huge $1 million gift from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation.     
 
The national guard have helped not only with food assembly and distribution, but also at-home delivery to seniors, individuals sheltering-in-place with health challenges, and those without a means of transportation. But the food bank is already preparing for what’s next.
 
“The National Guard are not going to be around forever,” says Pozno. “When they leave in August, we have to be prepared to work volunteers back into operations in a way that is safe for everyone.”
 
Partner organizations step up
 
The May Dugan Center, one of the food bank’s partner organizations, has been engaged in providing meals to the Cleveland community for over 50 years. Still, even with the knowledge that comes with those decades of experience, the staff had no idea what to expect when the pandemic started, even as they heard reports that demand was sharply trending up.
 
“We suspected there would be a big increase when we saw the fear-based scarcity collecting in grocery stores and food pantries in March, but we didn’t have any idea we would see the numbers we’ve been seeing,” explains Andy Trares, deputy director. 
 
Due to health and safety regulations, staff had to quickly abandon their regular in-person distribution practice in which individuals physically came into the building, registered, and picked up food during open drop-in hours. Shifting instead to pre-scheduled times (three people every 10 minutes), a delivery component, and drive-through distribution, this new normal has seen the May Dugan Center distribute over 135,000 meals in 3 months. For comparison, they gave out 130,000 meals in all of 2019.
 
For one of the drive-throughs in mid-April, sheer numbers outpaced available food and staff had to disseminate information on other food pantry options to a line of waiting cars. Yet despite the massive increase in service, morale remains high among the staff. “We have the ability and skillset to fill a need,” says Trares. 
 
The Euclid Hunger Center experienced a similar uptick in numbers when the virus started, topping out at distributing food to 160 families a week, the equivalent of 350-400 individuals. “We were worried because we couldn’t accommodate the numbers we were seeing,” says manager Kay O’Donnell. 
 
Yet although the number of senior meal deliveries is still going up, O’Donnell says their overall number of clients is decreasing, all the way down to 75-80 families a week. She attributes the decline partly to some individuals being able to return to work, but it’s also because more organizations have taken up food distribution.  
 
Even though the numbers are not as high as they were a few months ago, they’ll likely increase as families struggle to provide food when their kids are not in school during summer. Additionally, the jobless rate remains high and a second wave of the pandemic could force another shutdown. Warzocha said that up to a third of the people coming to the Muni Lot drive-through distributions say they haven’t needed emergency food assistance before.
 
“They’ve had their hours cut or lost their job for the first time ever, and they had no idea that service might be available or that there was an agency in their neighborhood, so when they saw on the news that they could come to the Muni Lot, they did,” she said. “And we’re there and will continue to be there.”
 
The Greater Cleveland Food Bank, May Dugan Center and Euclid Hunger Center all are in great need of donations and volunteers.

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