The Pittsburgh Foundation

Themes Heard from Food Providers

Below is what the Foundation's Program and Policy department staff heard after reaching out to nonprofit food providers to better understand their concerns, challenges and needs to inform our most immediate grantmaking, convening and public policy activities.

All food-related providers (Meals on Wheels, food pantries, benefit enrollment, soup kitchens) are committed to remaining open for the duration of the crisis and have modified food delivery models and SNAP benefit enrollments.

Food providers are concerned about whether they will have sufficient revenue to support their operations, as fund-raising efforts may be hampered, and staff have limited time to seek emergency funding

“You need both time and funding. I haven’t even had a chance to use emergency grants opportunities because I’m prioritizing most urgent needs, which is serving people.”

Organizations are struggling to get food to individuals who need it. Seniors and people with disabilities are particularly impacted. 

“We deal with four agencies…that were doing deliveries for us but are now closed so now we are challenged with finding replacements.” 

Organizations anticipate an increased demand for emergency and monthly food assistance and SNAP benefits.

“We see the major aftermath as a bump in food stamp applications. We think we have the staff to meet demand and may have to do less outreach.” 

Volunteers are a critical part of the food provider workforce and they are experiencing a drop-off in volunteer hours.   

“Our volunteers are older people, but that's not unique to our pantry. We had six volunteers call off during the week and several didn't show up. We ran our food pantry on Saturday… the volunteer base was down significantly. We need the people to deliver [the food].” 

In the face of eventual decreased operations due to state or local policies, organizations are using this time to redirect staff time to strategic areas, including beginning preparations for increased demand for food when the virus dies down. 

"If our trucks can keep working, we will keep functioning [doing deliveries] in that way. The bulk of our staff will be redirected to focus on the aftermath.” 

Organizations are worried about how this crisis changes the food sector, and what happens once social distancing restrictions are lifted.

“The scale of it is enormous. It’s about change. What do we do when this is all behind us? What does this change look like for us as a sector? How do we advocate differently?” 

Collaboration and cross-learning have been key to progress in the food provider sector so far.

“To get through this, it’s all about teamwork and partnerships and foundations to see us through this crisis. This is different than anything we’ve ever seen. Most calls that we’ve seen have been for food and meeting that need is more complicated than ever.” 

“(We’re) all working really hard in our lane and very happy to get together with other execs. [We] are a congregate hot lunch program and we are new to food distribution.”

Access to food is a major concern due to fear or inability to go to stores, and due to challenges ordering online. For example, online ordering requires access to the appropriate technology, and SNAP benefits are not able to be used for online purchasing.

“You can’t use online ordering if you don’t have a  computer, laptop, smartphone OR if you don’t know how to use it. This especially impacts seniors, low-income folks.”

Recommendations for Providing Support to Food Providers

  • Provide operating support to give organizations the flexibility that they need. 
  • Provide funding to support food delivery systems.  
  • Provide funding for food and supplies. 
  • Boost visibility of organizations serving smaller communities. 
  • Consider and explore the impact of the pandemic on the whole food ecosystem. How does this impact farmers markets, farmers, grocers?
  • Look at the process of food distribution to ensure it is coordinated. The Food Bank is doing a great job, but we need to make sure that people are not passing up neighborhood food pantries to go to large scale distributions where they are sitting in line for four hours and some people are turned away.
  • Advocate to allow SNAP recipients to purchase groceries online.