In the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations that support the food insecure like the Jewish Relief Agency (JRA) stepped up to the plate to make sure families and children would not be in danger of going hungry.
Nearly four months later, as social distancing restrictions ease and some businesses reopen, only one thing has changed at JRA: More people need food now than ever before.
“We’re at a very similar place to where we were in April,” JRA Executive Director Jodi Roth-Saks said. “The biggest change overall is the continued surge of new clients. July 2020 will be our biggest distribution in our history, with 3,700 boxes going out to clients. Every day, new people are calling asking for help. It’s clear that food insecurity in our region isn’t going away anytime soon.”
JRA serves more than 6,000 diverse low-income individuals across Greater Philadelphia by relieving hunger, improving lives and strengthening our community. Every month, volunteers deliver boxes of nutritious kosher food to low-income individuals and families in Greater Philadelphia. Volunteers pick up the boxes, along with select additional items, from JRA’s warehouse in Northeast Philadelphia and deliver them directly to recipient homes.
When Greater Philadelphia went into lockdown, 74 food banks in our region ceased operations entirely, and many began directing their clients to JRA for help. The challenges were immense: JRA relies heavily on large volunteer efforts, which had to be remanaged to maintain social distancing. Costs were spiraling — not just for more food but for the required changes in the warehouse, like health and safety measures and additional security.
JRA had to find a way to keep its work going and while also providing additional support for their community members in crisis. The first step was to secure more funding, which came by the way of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Emergency Response Fund.
“The Jewish Federation has been phenomenal,” Roth-Saks said. “They’ve made a substantial impact for JRA and the work we’re doing. Thanks to them, we’ve been able to offset much of our additional costs and have also been able to provide essential items like face masks for our clients. The Jewish Federation has been a friend, and we’re extremely grateful.”
Another resource was the Farmers to Families program run by the Department of Agriculture. The program redistributes fresh produce that was intended for now-closed restaurants and schools to services that provide food for low-income families.
JRA normally does not give out produce in the summer months due to a lack of refrigeration space, but in June it rented a refrigeration container in order to take advantage of this program. Now in its second month, 420 JRA families are receiving both their standard 13-15 pound boxes of food staples, as well as a box of fresh produce from regional farmers. In addition, JRA is including a bag of essential items such as toilet paper, soap, face masks and, for the first time this month, hand sanitizer.
For JRA clients, the extra efforts are incredibly appreciated.
“Being with JRA is like being with my family,” said Bernie, a JRA client, after receiving his delivery for Passover. “I feel safe and secure. It makes me feel like I am connected to my people again.”
And for clients like Fran, the essential items are proving incredibly valuable. “I really appreciated the two masks,” she said. “I needed to go the supermarket which, for me, is risky. I didn’t have any mask. I put yours on and I felt comfortable and protected.”
Client Arlene summed it up with, “You sent me gold. You sent toilet paper, soap and dishwasher detergent. You sent me gold.”
Many JRA volunteers are also thrilled to be returning to the warehouse for both the charitable and social benefits. JRA has now opened the warehouse for two volunteer days with four shifts. Roth-Saks noted that the volunteer opportunity has been especially popular for families with kids who were planning to spend the summer at camp and are loving the opportunity to be out and about helping their community.
Families are also benefiting from learning more about food insecurity and the value of lending a hand during hard times. Volunteers who still can’t make it into the warehouse are helping in other ways, including the JRA friendly phone calls program, which connects seniors living in isolation to their community.
JRA is continuing to fulfill its mission, but as it looks to the future, there are still many concerns.
“People are calling us every day who never needed help before,” Roth-Saks said. “It’s hard for them. Many of our volunteers are now becoming clients. And until there’s a vaccine, a lot of people in our community won’t be going back to work.”
She stressed that support for food pantries across the country should be the highest priority, particularly if the winter months bring another spike in the virus.
“No matter what happens, we need to be going directly to our clients to provide them food,” she concluded. “It’s so important that we are here doing what we can to support the families we support.”