‘Extra than simply getting a meal’: W. Pa. meals banks, teams nonetheless see extra individuals in want

As restrictions in place during the coronavirus pandemic have lifted and life for many begins to phase into something that resembles normalcy, others remain in need.

It will take 12 to 18 months for people to fully recover from the set-backs presented during the pandemic, estimated Charlese Hayden McKinney, director of partner network programs at the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank.

“Even though we’re turning the corner, we still the need the support,” McKinney said. “We still rely upon the generosity of the community to keep us going.”

McKinney said the food bank has benefited from community support to manage the increase in visitors that arose in April 2020 – which is usually a quieter time for them.

According to McKinney, the food bank’s emergency food distribution warehouse normally sees 10 families a day, but received up to 150 families a day once the pandemic hit. She said the number of visitors is now steady from month to month, but still above what they were in previous years.

Deb Thackrah, founder and executive director of Greensburg-based Feeding the Spirit, said the nonprofit saw a similar increase in visitors during the pandemic.

Thackrah said Feeding the Spirit typically serves a sit-down meal on Thursdays in Greensburg’s Otterbein United Methodist Church social hall, but pandemic restrictions caused the nonprofit to distribute grab-and-go meals on Saturdays at St. Clair Park instead.

Feeding the Spirit has served 100 to 120 people per week through its shared meal since 2011, she said. During the pandemic, between 400 and 500 people came out for a meal.

Because most restaurants were closed at the time Feeding the Spirit moved to St. Clair Park, Thackrah said her team planned to buy frozen meals until the owner of Sun Dawg Café in Greensburg offered to donate hot meals free of charge.

Other local restaurants, like Noviello’s Sunset Café in Greensburg, also joined the initiative, which allowed the nonprofit time to gather donations, grants and resources to accommodate the increased need.

Feeding the Spirit has been distributing to-go meals outside of church on Thursdays since October, receiving approximately 200 people each week. Discussion about reverting to an indoor sit-down meal will take place in the fall.

The Knead Community Café in New Kensington has experienced similar demands as a result of the pandemic.

Co-founder Mary Bode said she started the nonprofit café with her husband in February 2017 to provide an opportunity for everyone to eat a good meal and to create a stronger community. The café does not have set prices. Rather, visitors can pay the suggested donation, pay it forward to cover someone else’s meal, give a couple dollars or volunteer in exchange for a meal.

According to Bode, who lives in New Kensington, food prices have increased since the pandemic, which has made it difficult for the café to provide the same quality of food to its customers.

“We’re known for the quality of our food, the healthy options we give and our portion sizes are very nice portions for what you get,” Bode said. “But it’s a challenge right now because food costs have gone up significantly.”

Despite these difficulties, Bode said the café has been “blessed” with community support throughout the pandemic.

Thackrah said she also found support in the community, including the nonprofit’s recipients.

“A few of our guests – who have very little money – gave half of their stimulus checks to Feeding the Spirit as a donation,” Thackrah said. “They were so caring to make sure we had enough to give out to other people.”

Similarly, Rev. Dawn Check of Otterbein United Methodist said the pandemic has revealed the importance of the human connection involved with the church’s food distribution efforts.

Check, of Plum, said the church usually serves a sit-down meal to 200 people on Thanksgiving Day. Last year, packaged meals were provided to about 400. Although she was glad to help more people, Check said the in-person interaction aspect was lacking.

“People look at the numbers and think that’s great, but what was horrible is the joy of the Thanksgiving meal isn’t the turkey and the stuffing,” Check said. “It’s the fellowship, and people miss that.”

Bode said that under normal operation, the Knead Community Café is about the relationship between the volunteers and recipients.

“It’s so much more than just getting a meal,” Bode said. “It’s getting to learn about your community members and getting the opportunity to care about them – provide hope, inspiration and friendship.”

Check said Otterbein also does a year-round “meals in a bag” program for people of all ages and started a grab-and-go summer meal program for children.

Check said the children’s meal program began in May 2020 and runs from noon to 1 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays until Aug. 5. Both initiatives will be run the same as last year to ensure the safety of the volunteers and recipients.

The Knead Community Café shifted to packaging and distributing meals at 5 p.m. Thursdays during the pandemic. Bode plans to keep this style of operation for the time being.

Additionally, Bode said she noticed an increase in the number of guests coming to the café each month when the pandemic started, but a decrease when the federal coronavirus relief packages rolled out.

Jennifer Miller, CEO of the Westmoreland County Food Bank, saw the same trend.

Miller, of Connellsville, said the number of people making use of Westmoreland’s food pantries sharply increased in March, April and May last year before dropping when the federal aid – including bolstered Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and unemployment compensation – were distributed.

Miller said she anticipates the number of visitors to increase when the federal aid ends, especially during the summer when more families usually come by. Numbers aside, she said the food bank has seen a lot of new faces since the pandemic began.

To accommodate pandemic guidelines, Miller said programs such as Fresh Express shifted its operation to providing pre-boxed food via a drive-thru method when possible.

The food bank will monitor the pandemic moving forward to determine how programs can be safely run, but there is no way of predicting what the future will hold, Miller said.

“Just when you think you have normalcy and just when you think you have everything under control, it isn’t necessarily there,” she said.

Ultimately, Miller said the goal is to ensure the food bank is catering to its recipients.

“We are still the same programs. The people who receive our services have changed immensely,” Miller said. “Being able to meet their challenges and being able to understand what their needs are has taken on a whole different avenue.”

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