When KleinLife shut down congregate programs at the start of the pandemic, the organization’s clients were told to stay home for their own safety.
Unfortunately, those who relied on meal programs didn’t know where their next dinner would come from.
“We got completely inundated by the phone calls from the seniors that we usually serve,” said Andre Krug, president and CEO of KleinLife.
He knows exactly how severe the food insecurity crisis has become. Before last March, 309 seniors depended on his organization’s meal support program. At the height of the pandemic, that number grew to more than 800.
“It was a huge, huge undertaking. Basically, we went from delivering about 1,000 meals a week to delivering about 3,500 meals a week,” he said.
To make matters worse, he added, the volunteer pool that usually stepped up to cook meals at KleinLife’s facilities, synagogues and community centers was no longer able to prepare and distribute the food due to social distancing requirements. Many volunteers were more than 60 years old and considered especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.
That meant the organization made up the difference by buying meals, which put a strain on resources and required significant fundraising.
To meet the growing need, KleinLife announced on Feb. 16 that it will partner with regional hunger relief organization Philabundance, which will be preparing food for deliveries in the Philabundance Community Kitchen facility. The PCK program provides a 16-week course in culinary training to adults with little or no income.
“A big part of that is learning about the science of food, learning about how to handle food safely so they can then get a safe food handling certificate, learning about how to lead and follow management in a working kitchen,” Philabundance CEO Loree Jones said. “It’s also about the life skills that you need to be able to hold to be gainfully employed.”
PCK had to pause operations and switch to virtual learning at the height of the pandemic last year, but Philabundance has been able to return students to the kitchen using masks and social distancing.
When Brian Gralnick, director of social responsibility at Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, took a tour of the PCK facility, he realized it could provide an opportunity to tackle rising food insecurity in the community. Jewish Federation identified a lead funder to support the partnership: Tony Schneider, a founder of the Mitzvah Food Program.
“Many of our community members are fighting to make ends meet, including our most vulnerable seniors,” Schneider said in a statement. “I’m moved by the devastating effect that the pandemic has had and was anxious to invest in a new concept that could have an immediate and meaningful impact on those most in need. The Jewish Federation’s plan for a collaboration between KleinLife and Philabundance connected multiple elements — helping vulnerable seniors while also investing in the long-term success and resiliency of our community.”
Jones said the partnership will give KleinLife clients access to a variety of healthy meals that cater to diverse diets, rather than relying on a single option. Menus will include vegetarian and pescatarian meals along with beef and poultry.
She is painfully aware that the pandemic has exacerbated hunger in the Philadelphia area and throughout the country. She said COVID-19 has increased food insecurity by up to 60%, and her organization serves approximately 135,000 people each week. In the last year, it has distributed more than 50 million pounds of food through a network of 350 partners, including food pantries, houses of worship, community centers and hospitals.
Jones added that seniors are especially vulnerable due to preexisting health conditions, and many have had to choose whether to use their limited money to buy food, buy medications or heat their homes.
She said Philabundance and KleinLife have collaborated on other projects before, but the pandemic made the need for strong partnerships in times of crisis clearer than ever.
“This notion of partnership and collaboration to solve these really big problems is part of our work every day, and definitely is evidenced by this partnership,” she said.