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Central Pa. Food Bank prepares for coronavirus: ’We really are in the crisis business’
Patriot-News - 3/13/2020
As the coronavirus outbreak spreads, the impact is starting to be felt throughout Pennsylvania - such as when Governor Tom Wolf announced the closing of all schools K-12 in the state for two weeks.
And as the state braces for the disease, the nonprofit organization Central Pennsylvania Food Band is preparing to assist those who are most vulnerable - not just to the disease itself, but to those who will suffer disruptions of public meal programs or loss of income.
“I can only speak from my own experience and what I’ve learned, but I don’t think anyone has seen a crisis quite to this extent, because it really affects everybody everywhere,” said Amy Hill, director of community engagement at Central Pennsylvania Food Bank in Harrisburg. “And the unknown is the greatest challenge. But we certainly have been sort of called upon to rise when a need has arisen.”
One such example, Hill said, was during the federal government shutdown of 2019, during which “hundreds, if not thousands, of federal employees were facing empty cupboards because their paychecks were frozen for a long time.”
The closing of schools throughout the state is likely to send many families scrambling - particularly those with students who may rely on the free school lunches from programs such as the National School Lunch Program. While those programs aren’t supplied by the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, Hill said that the organization was on standby to assist if needed.
“When schools are closed, it certainly causes a lot of hardships for parents on a good day,” Hill said. “But we heard from the Department of Education that Pennsylvania received a waiver to allow schools to continue serving meals to students through the National School Lunch Program and other federal programs that give them reimbursement for those meals.”
The schools who operate with those federal programs may now choose to focus on “non-congregate setting” meals - in other words, distributing meals to students without putting them all in a cafeteria together, raising their collective risk of infection. Students or parents may be able to pick up those free school lunches and take them home.
“We’re calling around now to the schools and the different programs to find out what each of their contingency plans are,” Hill said. “If there’s any need for us to provide some assistance, we certainly will do that. Each school will have its own protocol for dealing with those types of things.”
READ MORE: Now that schools are closed over coronavirus, districts work on feeding needy students
But school lunches aren’t the only meals that may be disrupted during coronavirus shutdowns. As with the federal government shutdown in 2019, the closing of businesses may lead to loss of income - which could mean people finding cupboards bare before the pandemic subsides.
“There’s a genuine concern as this crisis unfolds and businesses shut down, people who rely on that paycheck might lose a shift or two,” Hill said. “That causes further pressure in their family budgets, where they could run out sooner than later.”
And senior citizens - the group most susceptible to the coronavirus’ most severe symptoms - are also often the beneficiaries of food programs, whether in highly socialized settings or in the form of personal meal deliveries. And that means expanded precautions for the Food Bank, and for all of their partner groups who disperse the food directly to those in need.
One such partner group is New Hope Ministries, a charitable group that offers, among many other services, “basically a small grocery store for low income individuals and families to come and get help with food,” according to executive director Eric Saunders.
“We’re there to make sure people get through the month and they can eat healthy,” Saunders said. “Our major focus over the next couple of weeks is going to be trying to stay open. Particularly our food pantries, to make sure nobody in our community goes hungry.”
With warehouses in Mechanicsburg, Dillsburg, Hanoer and Littlestown, Saunders said, New Hope’s stores are certainly well stocked. But if they start running low, he added, “we can always rely on the Central Pa.Food Bank to restock us.”
But anywhere people gather in large groups increases the risk of spreading the disease. Rather than allowing those most vulnerable to the disease risk infection, Hill said that the affiliated food pantries were looking into new sanitation guidelines and ways to minimize crowds of people congregating to collect food, perhaps in the form of car service or door-to-door deliveries -- in other words, she said, “making sure nobody has to go hungry trying to protect themselves in the midst of the coronavirus.”
“We’re going to be working with partner agencies around the region to make sure that while they’re taking precautions to protect everyone from exposure to coronavirus, they’re still able to fulfill their mission,” Hill said. “Certainly senior citizens are among the highest risk group, so making sure that those who really rely on that box of food to help fill their pantries, we’re continuing to make sure they get it.”
READ MORE: Coronavirus update: Three patients test positive in Cumberland County
“That grocery store experience I described may have to change a little bit, as we get into social distancing and schools shutting down and local businesses closing their doors," Saunders said. "We’re already gearing up to offer a drive-by service, where we can have zero contact but we can still offer help to people. If someone has an emergency need, if they were quarantined or home-bound, we would do our best to get help to them.”
“It’s really an unprecedented challenge that we have, but like with any challenge, we’re going to stay committed to the mission as best we can,” Hill said.
And with such an unprecedented challenge, she said, there was a very simple step that people could take to assist with such an unprecedented challenge: donate.
“Probably the thing that we could use the most is financial contributions,” she said. “I think that’s always true. And again, minimizing the person-to-person contact that everyone is recommending. Gathering food is always welcome, but you can sit at home and go online to make a donation. And those dollars we can use to meet the needs, purchase things that aren’t donated, to make sure that if we have to do extra mobile distributions or something, we have all the resources in place to do that.”
“It’s a little bit scary to think about us ramping up services at a time when the stock market is in free fall and people have kind of slowed down their giving activity," Saunders said. "We’re hoping that the community will remember to support local charities like New Hope and many other good charities in the area, who are providing services to people in need. We’re going to be open for business, even if we have to do it at arm’s length.”
And provided that they are not sick and don’t have reason to believe they’ve been exposed to infected individuals, volunteers are always needed at the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank - in fact, now more than ever.
“We want to make sure we get the message out, one, that help will be available," Hill said. "But also, we’re noticing a lot of volunteer groups that we really rely on are making decisions and some of them are canceling. We’re going to need volunteers to help us keep up with our mission. We probably are going to need some extra volunteers.
“We want people to take care of themselves and all that, but we’re not closing up shop for this,” Hill said. “We’re going to take every precaution, but we’re going to keep doing what we do. We really are in the crisis business, helping people in need when something isn’t going right or is out of the ordinary in their lives. With this, we just have the added challenge of making sure that we’re protecting people and that we’re not exposing people unnecessarily.”
“We are still operational," she added. "If you’re scheduled to come and volunteer, and you’re not sick, you’re still very welcome here.”
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