On Jodi Roth-Saks’ first distribution day as the executive director of the Jewish Relief Agency in the fall of 2018, upward of 1,000 volunteers delivered close to 3,400 boxes of nonperishable food to low-income households in the Philadelphia area.
Throughout the day, the small professional staff and a few regulars oversaw volunteers as they constructed boxes, shuffled along the packing station assembly line and schmoozed, grabbed a cup of coffee and packed those boxes into cars, each of them with a list of houses and apartments to visit.
Now, imagine this: With the March 22 distribution date quickly approaching, Roth-Saks and the JRA team realized that they needed to make all of their promised deliveries, and more, without having more than 25 people in their warehouse at any time due to social distancing measures.
What followed was a mammoth feat of organizing, shepherded to success by constant advice from health experts in Philadelphia and tips from food pantry organizations across the country. Roth-Saks and her team figured out how to deliver those thousands of boxes, safely and quickly.
Now, as the April 20 distribution date approaches, they’re armed with a new blueprint for the coming months of social distancing.
Though Roth-Saks and the staff had kept tabs on COVID-19 news for some time, it was only around Purim that it became clear that the prospect of bringing together 1,000 people would not be advisable.
Just a few days after Purim, more than a week before the March 22 distribution, the process began in earnest. Staff members and small groups of volunteers began to pack boxes in two-hour shifts, loading up cars with a tweaked version of the drive-through system. Everyone who walked through the door got a safety orientation, interspersed with off-ramps for the potential volunteers: Had they recently returned from a foreign country? Had they experienced any symptoms or been around anyone who had? If they could answer everything satisfactorily, they were given a mask and gloves and put to work.
Between March 16 and 20, working in groups of 10, the staff and volunteers constructed and then filled over 3,000 boxes, which were packed into waiting cars as they were completed. It was an odd sight, Roth-Saks said, to see the 13,000-square-foot warehouse, normally teeming, practically empty. But the job got done.
By March 20, the volunteer packing base had thinned out as fear of exposure had grown. Around then, Roth-Saks and the board made another move: They hired 10 part-time personnel, nine of whom had recently been laid off or furloughed from other jobs, to do the packing. Volunteers would be restricted to making deliveries, which they would do in a new, contactless fashion: knock once, leave the box at the door and call from the car to let the recipient know the box had arrived.
“It was a no-brainer for us to say, ‘OK, we’re going to make this contactless through and through,” Roth-Saks said. No-brainer or not, JRA was one of the first food pantries in the country to adopt that method; on a conference call with regional food banks and pantries, JRA served as the expert on drive-through pickup and delivery.
It wasn’t only distributional logistics that had to change.
Julie Roat, JRA’s chief of operations, had to figure out how she could procure all the food that she needed at a time of great stress for JRA’s supply chains up and down I-95.
“It’s been very challenging,” she said.
Most simply, Roat said, it’s been a matter of looking at a spreadsheet, finding the holes and then filling them with whatever she could. The normal process for food banks and pantries is to place an order with a distributor, receive confirmation and then receive the order a few weeks later, to be packed on the line and then delivered. Now, she’s ordering twice as much food as usual, hoping to get half of what she asks for.
Beans and tomato products remain in good supply; crackers and pasta, not so much. Rather than leave the box a little lighter for a family that needs it, Roat just tries to fill the box with whatever she can. Thus far, she’s been able to do that.
Meanwhile, Programs and Communications Manager Elvera Gurevich is working to keep volunteers engaged, even as packing has stopped. She’s letting volunteers know that deliveries are needed urgently, especially on weekdays. JRA needs drivers coming through as much as possible, but not in numbers that overwhelm the tiny staff on site.
None of it is easy, and it could continue for months. But the staff at JRA is digging deep, logging countless Zoom hours and keeping in constant contact with health officials.
“We’re trying to do as much as we can as fast as we can to be able to support more people in our community, because we realize the need is so great,” Roth-Saks said.
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