This story is part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
By Jenn Ladd | THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
A line of dutifully distanced Philadelphians wrapped around the 1700 block of South Broad Street on a recent Thursday morning. It stretched around the corner, past the Tasker-Morris subway stop, down Morris to 13th Street.
Elsewhere in Philly, similar lines formed at 39 other sites, from Parkside to Port Richmond, Olney to Elmwood, Bustleton to Roxborough. All were waiting to receive free boxes filled with five days’ worth of food.
That day, more than 12,000 boxes were distributed. Every box was claimed, sometimes in only a matter of minutes. The next week, the operation scaled up to 16,000 boxes, 400 per site. Since the no-questions-asked program launched on March 30, almost 72,000 boxes have been handed out.
This is a team effort between the city and two of its largest food banks — Philabundance and Share Food Program — to feed thousands of Philadelphians who suddenly find themselves food-insecure during the coronavirus pandemic. It supplements the city’s 350-plus food pantries and 80 or so student meal sites established after schools closed. Like every other part of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia’s unemployment rate has spiked in recent weeks.
Every Monday and Thursday morning, the boxes are stacked up and shipped out from a warehouse in Roxborough. The round-the-clock process to assemble them requires money, resourcefulness, and manpower.
“It’s a lot of moving parts,” said deputy managing director Joanna Otero-Cruz, who oversees the assembly process in Roxborough.
Philabundance and Share Food provide the contents inside the boxes, and filling them may be the most challenging part of this process. When many of the nation’s restaurants closed, panicked shoppers bought up shelf-stable goods in bulk, clearing store shelves. Restocking requires manufacturers to crank up production unexpectedly, with the same amount of staff, equipment, and supplies, at a time when that’s not so easily achieved.
“They didn’t foresee this — none of us really foresaw this happening,” said Philabundance spokesperson Samantha Retamar.
Retamar described Philabundance’s food acquisitions team chasing down leads on rice, pasta, cereal, and other goods, working nonstop “to see when [vendors are] getting food in, how much we can buy — because we obviously can’t buy them out,” she said. The food banks have to leave supply for grocery stores, which often get first pick. And the rules of supply and demand don’t let up during a pandemic.
“Prices are increasing across the board for dry goods,” Retamar said.
Share Food executive director George Matysik said that the nonprofit spent $4 million purchasing dry goods last year and expects that figure to nearly double this year as a result of the pandemic’s effects.
“We’re putting a lot of money out of pocket right now,” Matysik said. “If there was ever a time for us to put everything on the line, this is it.”
To fill their warehouse-sized pantries, food banks rely on donations from grocery stores, farmers, manufacturers, and wholesalers, as well as purchases made with state and private funds. With grocery stores’ supplies cleared out, the mass donations of shelf-stable goods are down. But other categories are up.
“We’re getting record amounts of produce. I can show you our freezer now, which is packed to the gills,” Matysik said while leading a tour of Share Food’s Hunting Park warehouse.
Though the space was much emptier than usual — “We’re seeing parts of the floor we haven’t seen in a while” — there were still pallets upon pallets of boxed arugula, grapes, kidney beans, puffed rice cereal, walnuts, peanut butter, canned beef with juices, eggs, cheese, precooked chicken strips, frozen green beans, Campbell’s vegetable and cream of chicken soups, and Starkist tuna.
“What folks need to know is that the supply chain in Philadelphia is among the strongest in the country,” Matysik said. “Food continues to come in.”
The challenge of the city’s distribution program is ensuring a good mix of produce and shelf-stable food — enough for 16,000 boxes per cycle. Recent boxes have contained dry goods like egg noodles and tuna, dried navy beans, yellow split peas, and pancake mix; canned goods such as peaches, peas, collard greens, sweet potatoes, and pears; orange juice and shelf-stable milk; and fresh produce including bananas, salad mix, carrots, and Kennett Square mushrooms. Recently, the city has started to distribute dry goods on Mondays and perishables on Thursdays.
Once the contents of the box are determined, the food is centralized at a Roxborough warehouse (the future home of a brewery) that Philadelphia is using rent-free to package and distribute the boxes. It takes about two full days to ready one morning’s distribution, with the help of a rotating cast of 60 to 100 volunteers and Community Life Improvement Program staffers per shift. The city has worked with Easter Outreach and Liberti Church network to find volunteers; in the first week of operation, more than 200 volunteers showed up to help build boxes.
Social distancing measures are enforced by team leads: “We have to be … kind of militant,” Joanna Otero-Cruz said. “You get into your flow and, next thing you know, you’re just a couple feet away. So reminding folks that — even though we’re wearing masks and gloves — we still want that friendly distance for everybody’s well-being.” Bright-orange signs have been posted in the warehouse to keep people attuned to distancing, and efficiency has increased each week.
The process starts with building cardboard boxes, which are loaded on a conveyor belt and carefully packed with 10 to 12 pounds of food before they’re stacked into a pallet 67 boxes high. Each pallet is shrink-wrapped, then loaded by forklift — at the appropriate time — into a fleet of 12 delivery trucks.
“It’s very helpful to be able to stack them up the night before of day of distribution,” said Otero-Cruz. “We learned very quickly we cannot do that with produce and vegetables, which means that you have to allow for more time in the morning.” (Recently, some refrigerated trucks were enlisted to help.)
By the time most distribution sites begin passing out boxes each Monday and Thursday morning, the lines are stretched down the street and around the block. The seemingly never-ending need doesn’t daunt Share Food’s Matysik.“We were here long before this crisis, and we’ll be here long after,” he said.