As I reflect on my first year as CEO of Philabundance, I think of people. I think of the alarmingly large number of people in our region who struggled to feed their families—often for the first time—as the pandemic and accompanying economic crisis took hold. I think of the incredibly heroic Philabundance staff and agency partners who worked tirelessly to provide food under ever changing and uncertain conditions. I think about how severely COVID-19 tested the capacity of every organization that provides community services. The pandemic created medical and economic hardship for so many, and it dramatically intensified the ongoing challenge of food insecurity in the communities we serve.
People lost jobs and income while they faced frightening financial pressures. Friends and neighbors found themselves food insecure for the first time. We saw images from across the country of drivers lining up for miles to wait for food, and at Philabundance, our mantra became: we must do more for the people we serve. I look back at the work we have done, and I’m proud to say that Philabundance has made a difference.
The big numbers first: We distributed 55 million pounds of food in 2020, a record for us and a goal we thought impossible a few years ago. It was about 60 percent more than we distributed in 2019, and a considerable portion of it went to first-time visitors to our agency partners. We served thousands of people throughout nine counties, despite supply-chain interruptions and added health precautions and restrictions for the volunteers and employees who stepped up to help.
To battle the tremendous spike in food insecurity, we launched new ways to provide food, including drive-thru distributions at the Phillies’ Citizens Bank Park, home deliveries to seniors, and meals to restaurant workers. We partnered with the City of Philadelphia to distribute food at 40 sites. Working with a Philadelphia City Councilmember, we offered food in the Eastwick neighborhood after devastating floods there in August. When a Pennsylvania State Senator came to us with his Driving Hunger Away During Ramadan program, we helped feed 6,000 people by delivering Philabundance Community Kitchen meals to different daily locations for 30 days.
We know that our work is being recognized. Two days before Inauguration Day, President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, in tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., joined Philabundance staff and volunteers at our South Philly facility. In September, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and First Lady Frances Wolf cut the ribbon to open the new home for our Philabundance Community Kitchen–where low and no-income people can receive food service training and life skills development assistance, preparing meals for vulnerable members of the Philadelphia community. Pennsylvania Secretary of Agriculture Russell Redding visited and volunteered at one of our distributions, and Secretary of Human Services Teresa Miller and Secretary of Corrections John Edward Wetzel visited us twice each. Our time with Secretary Miller was spent discussing how we can do more to address the social determinants of health; and with Secretary Wetzel we discussed the success of the Philabundance Community Kitchen’s program. These conversations and relationships help Philabundance find new ways to partner and identify new paths to better serve communities we touch.
I’m pleased with the heightened role we have taken in the past year working with government leaders and agencies. I was honored to provide testimony twice before the state legislature, first in the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus to discuss the impact of COVID on people of color, then with the Senate Democratic Policy Committee to talk about COVID and food insecurity, especially among children. Legislative and administrative staff working at the state and city levels now call on Philabundance regularly for our expertise and assistance.
We invested nearly $5 million in vehicles, refrigeration, technology, electrical upgrades, waste management and other equipment for our agency partners. That was made possible by the generosity of our supporters. We had record-breaking donations for FY20 and already for FY21, with more donations than ever from large and small benefactors. Expanded programs are making it easier for our donors to have an impact; in our “virtual food drives” we empowered people to select from a list of needed food items when they were not able to bring in food themselves. These donations have allowed Philabundance to rise during this challenging time and make the necessary investments to meet the need.
We know that the people we serve are going to be among the last to recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic. Food insecurity will remain, even with people being vaccinated, COVID cases decreasing, and jobs returning. The challenges we seek to address are complex and deep rooted. We approach our work armed with information and humility. We know that we do not have all the answers and that the best solutions will be co-created by a diverse coalition. Key partners in this work are the people we serve, and we measure our success in terms of how it affects them.
That means it’s really not sufficient to trumpet the fact that we distributed over 55 million of pounds of food. We must understand whether those pounds were the food people wanted, whether the product alleviated stress and was provided in a dignified way. “Right food, right time, right way,” we say. We’ll continually adjust to meet the needs of people. We’ll engage our agency partners in discussions about how we can better serve people at times and in ways that are dignified. We’ll source food (donated, rescued, government, and purchased) that people want.
Ending hunger for good is a gargantuan challenge, but not an impossible one. There is no food shortage. The road to zero hunger will require ceaseless energy, innovative approaches, logistical expertise, and buy-in from those in power who have the will to help. We’ll continue to build on our achievements in these areas and move closer to that goal. We’ll hold ourselves to the highest standards while offering ourselves grace, understanding that progress takes time, that we won’t always get it right the first time—and that when we lose we won’t lose the lesson.
In this next year we will continue the fight to relieve hunger today and end hunger for good. I am proud to partner with our staff, agency partners, supporters, and so many others to keep moving toward that goal.
By: Loree D. Jones, Philabundance Chief Executive Officer