UWCHLAN — “Unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”
That is how Chester County Food Bank Executive Director Larry Welsch describes the challenges his organization has faced with the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The food bank, with its headquarters and central distribution hub located in the Eagleview Corporate Center, distributes food to cupboards and food pantries that serve between 40,000 to 50,000 Chester County residents each quarter.
Welsch said one of the largest issues the food bank is facing is the sourcing of food. Normally the supply chain of sourcing food comes through statewide and national networks that provide both fresh and non-perishable food sources. With residents across the nation bulk-purchasing and hoarding supplies, demand from stores at the wholesale level has drawn down the availability of supplies for the food bank.
“Some of the bigger food banks have had food orders turned down from dealers,” Welsch said. “ It’s kind of a fluid situation; it changes every day.”
To address the crisis, Welsch and the food bank have worked with other food banks across Pennsylvania including Feeding PA, the PA arm of Feeding America and Hunger Free Pennsylvania to address shortages together.
He also credits the help of Chester County officials, with whom they are in contact every day, to get through the crisis.
“We’re thankful for all the support of the County, the public, businesses and foundation. It’s been a tremendous effort,” said Welsch. “We are so lucky to have the support.”
Welsch said staff saw issues developing weeks ago and got a jump on it. They assigned one staff member, Phoebe Kitson-Davis, to spearhead the response. She is now the director of COVID-19 emergency response director at the food bank.
“Weeks ago, we started conversations with the Departments of Health, Community Development, Emergency Services,” said Kitson-Davis. “Prior to this, we were serving 40,000 and 50000 residents of the county but we know there are close to 75,000 food-insecure residents. That is, they are worried they do not know where they are going to purchase or find healthy food to feed their families; they are one paycheck away from disaster.”
Kitson-Davis said as they saw the crisis looming, they immediately purchased extra food to create food boxes that could be distributed across the county while continuing to honor contracts such as the Meals on Wheels and Simple Suppers programs.
“Our director of logistics Nick Popov has been fantastic. He and his drivers are moving the food into all corners of our county,” Kitson-Davis said. “Food pantries, senior centers, youth centers, low income and senior housing sites.”
Kitson-Davis also cited the food chain as a major problem, using toilet paper as an example.
“People have about 500 percent more than they need, but people in poverty have none at all. They had to wait for their check to come or wait for their tips; they didn’t have a cushion,” she said.
The food bank has a state grant and relies on a wholesale dealer to purchase food for its pantries. “He is looking apple sauce and he is having a hard time finding it anywhere. It’s a trickle-down of families going out and buying apple sauce for two months,” she said.
As the crisis developed, the food bank made the decision to limit access to the food distribution center to lessen the possibility of contaminating the food. Staff members use best practices in health safety and are cleaning constantly. Precautionary steps have included ending volunteer activities in the building. The staff has been split, so half are isolated and working remotely on a roughly 14-day cycle. Should someone become infected, or just not be able to work, those who were isolated can step in.
On Friday, they decided not to accept any more community food drives. Welsch said there is no way at this time they can assure the safety of the food or have the time to sort it properly. Donations of monetary gifts can be made at their website: https://chestercountyfoodbank.org/covid19/
The food bank has been a tremendous partner for us,” said Joe Fratinardo, president of the West Chester Cupboard, which is open four days a week and located at 431 S. Belmar St. “They supply 20 percent of our food source doing these times and are a great resource for food, logistics and information. We are getting good supplies from them, good quantities. They are being very nimble.”
Fratinardo said he has seen a 10 percent increase in clients in the past few weeks and expects a larger need in the coming weeks as layoffs continue.
“Our shelves are looking sparse, but we’re not out of stock right now," said Fratinardo. “We’re low on meats, living hand to mouth, but we are adjusting every day. We’re trying to get the word out we are open.”
Fratinardo said they limit human interaction with clients, not allowing anyone into the facility. They fill a shopping cart with between 125-150 pounds of groceries, then put it into the client’s trunk.
“Donations to our co-op are down right now. People, in general, are very generous, it’s just a different time right now,” said Stephanie Duncan, Executive Director of the Coatesville Community Food Co-op which is opened once a month. “We have to dip into our resources to fill in the gaps. Right now, it’s hard on everybody A lot of times the food just isn’t in the stores. Wegmans and Giant have always been tremendous supporters.”
Last week, they served 45 families, which is typical. They try to give families a week’s worth of groceries.
"If it were not for the Chester County Food Bank and their courageous, proficient & big-hearted staff, I'm not sure organizations like Alianzas could continue to provide critical services in this time of unprecedented need for emergency provisions for our most vulnerable," said Nina Guzman, Executive Director of Alianzas de Phoenixville. "The drivers are exceptional heroes as they continue our deliveries with the same care and professionalism. Alianzas has served our immigrant communities for 10 years now and The Food Bank has been and continues to be one of our most important Allies."
“We are continuing to bring in fresh produce, sorting bagging and packaging, while we are taking the steps, to the best of our ability, to have a system as normal as possible for as long as we can have it happen,” Kitson-Davis said.
Looking ahead to the possibility that the supply chain breaks, they have a full commercial kitchen where staff are making 1,800-2,000 frozen meals a week. These are being stocked away to be prepared for the next stage of the crisis.
Welsch said they are also working with the governor's office to get the USDA to approve a waiver allowing federal supplied food to be serve to anyone who needs it, not just income-restricted lists.
He also said they were in communications with the National Guard on distribution should it come down to that but "we’re not there yet."
“We know our seniors are going to need support. We know families without cooking capacity will need support. We’re looking to identify them mainly through our distribution system,” she said. “We know thousands rely on us to get food to their organizations. We feel that deep in our hearts.”