As skyrocketing gas prices and grocery cost inflation have impacted those most financially disadvantaged, the same factors also affect the organizations that serve them.
Philadelphia-based Jewish Relief Agency, a volunteer-led hunger-relief nonprofit, has felt its share of pandemic- and war-induced economic hardships, forcing the organization to adapt to changing circumstances. As summer approaches, small volunteer numbers are making monthly food packing and distribution efforts even harder.
JRA has struggled with sourcing food to distribute to clients since 2020, when the pandemic rendered some food staples unavailable.
The organization serves 3,400 households in 90 zip codes around Philadelphia. Around 65% of clients are Jewish, and 73% are 65 years old or older.
According to JRA Executive Director Jodi Roth-Saks, JRA added more clients in 2020 due to the financial difficulties of the pandemic While 300 of the organization’s older clients died in the pandemic, JRA began to serve young families with growing financial needs, Chief of Operations Julie Roat added.
“Not only did we have so many more households asking for food, we also had a challenging time accessing all of the food we needed to feed everyone,” Roth-Saks said.
Since the pandemic began, JRA has fitted more food in boxes, going from 12-13 pounds to about 15 pounds. But the cost to fill a box also has increased. This year, the Passover box — one of four holiday boxes JRA produces — cost $4 more to fill than last year.
JRA receives food from Philabundance and Share Food Program. It also receives funding from FEMA’s Emergency Food and Shelter Program grant, government support, corporate and family foundations and private donors to work with regional vendors to source food.
Though the organization is not in financial trouble, it feels the impact of its vendors’ supply chain problems.
“What we’re dealing with, our price changes or price increases, it’s astronomical,” said Andrew Lansman, president and owner of Baltimore-based A&L Foods, one of JRA’s vendors. “I’ve been in the business 40 years, and I’ve never seen increases that we are experiencing now.”
The prices of eggs have doubled, and the company can only source 20-30% of its usual supply of some foods. Freight costs are the company’s biggest expenditure, Lansman said.
Sourcing kosher food at a good price is even more challenging than sourcing conventional goods. Many kosher products are not made by their kosher brands but rather outsourced to manufacturers, adding one more step to transportation. The smaller volume of kosher goods means they are less of a priority to those larger manufacturers. And early in the pandemic, rabbis were unable to travel to food production sites to provide the mandatory supervision needed for kosher goods.
On JRA’s end, this looks like more expensive goods coming into the warehouse at inopportune times. Roat often has to balance receiving deliveries for boxes months in advance with packing and delivering boxes for the current month.
Before the pandemic, JRA would host volunteer packing days and food distribution days on one Sunday a month. Now, packing days are on Thursday, Friday and Sunday, and volunteers distribute the boxes on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. It’s the same amount, if not more boxes than before the pandemic, with only a fraction of the volunteer hands available.
Summer volunteer shortages are a national phenomena, Roth-Saks said, as is volunteering overall. A December 2021 Gallup survey reported a 56% decline in volunteering in 2021.
Some of the decline is predictable; Philadelphians go down the shore on the weekend and travel over the summer.
“People are finally out and about. With COVID, many people had not been traveling as much,” she said. “It is going to be especially hard to recruit volunteers this summer.”
Chris Levin has volunteered with JRA for more than four years, including at the beginning of the pandemic, when only a handful of volunteers came into the warehouse to pack boxes.
Before the pandemic, Levin remembered hundreds of volunteers packing on a Sunday. Roat said that before March 2020, about 1,000 volunteers would participate in food packing and delivery. During the pandemic, a good turnout was 300-500 people.
“I don’t know why people aren’t coming,” Levin said. “But from my perspective, there’s a job to be done, and I’m just going to do whatever I can do to fulfill that need because it’s a need that should not exist.”
Roth-Saks and Roat hope that workplaces will return to the JRA warehouses for corporate volunteer opportunities. With the return of summer camps at full capacity, campers can help buoy volunteer efforts.
Pam Malter, director of Camp Canadensis in Monroe, said campers volunteering at JRA is a symbiotic relationship; recipients enjoy speaking with young people, and campers return to camp with stories about the interesting people they met volunteering. Camp Canadensis will have campers volunteer with JRA after a two-year absence.
“[Campers] love learning about the organization. Many of them want to return in the future because they had such a good experience,” Malter said. “And they really love being able to bring boxes to people who are in need.”
JRA will host volunteer days on June 9, 10 and 12-15; July 7, 8 and 10-12; and Aug. 11, 12 and 14-16. More information is available at jewishrelief.org/volunteer-1.