Before the coronavirus reached the region, FeedMore WNY served more than 135,000 individuals annually throughout Niagara, Erie, Chautauqua, and Cattaraugus counties through its food bank distribution center and more than 300 partner hunger-relief agencies, as well as its home-delivered meal and other targeted feeding programs. That all changed in March.
“Thousands more of our community members have reached out to us for food assistance since COVID-19 hit our region,” said Michael Daloia, ’09, ’15, the organization’s chief products and services officer. “We are experiencing many calls for help from community members who have never relied on our services before. Those who are reaching out include individuals who lost their jobs due to the ongoing crisis, families with children who are no longer receiving school meals, and homebound neighbors in dire need of support.”
In the past month, FeedMore WNY has provided 1.5 million pounds of food to its partner agencies and through food distributions, a 41% increase compared to what it distributed this time last year, Daloia said. In addition, as more and more individuals join its home-delivered meal program each day, FeedMore WNY is now distributing more than 27,600 meals each week, a 26% increase compared to its average weekly deliveries.
When it became apparent that the coronavirus was going to have a large impact on the community, the organization quickly established a task force to strategize ways to continue providing critical services while keeping clients, volunteers, staff, and community partners safe. Smaller working groups were formed to take on the details of the plan. Daloia’s group was charged with contacting all FeedMore WNY’s network agencies to determine who had the capacity to serve more individuals, who was vulnerable to close, and what gaps to accessing food assistance existed.
After gaining approval from the organization’s state and federal contract managers for flexibility in how commodities and funding provided through those programs could be used, Daloia and his team began to pack emergency food kits for mass distributions and purchase supplies for the agencies. The group continues to meet daily to discuss the fast-moving events at national, state, and local levels and the arising needs facing their network and organization.
To meet those needs, FeedMore WNY has been making larger and more frequent deliveries of food to its partner agencies and expanded the number of distributions through its Mobile Food Pantry program, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy items, and other perishable foods to those in need. In addition, it has been holding supplemental food distributions in underserved neighborhoods and in areas of the community where food pantries and soup kitchens have had to close due to the virus. It is shipping nutritious bags of foods to schools for distribution to their students, and its staff and volunteers are also delivering emergency food kits to those who are temporarily unable to leave their residence to access a food pantry.
“Wherever people are accessing food, we are trying to work within our operational parameters to get additional supplies there to support the whole family,” Daloia said, adding that FeedMore WNY’s strong network of agency and community partners have enabled the organization “to avoid hungry community members waiting in hours-long lines for food assistance.”
In addition to an unprecedented increase in the need for food, FeedMore WNY is also dealing with a decline in the number of volunteers, many of whom are older community members who are more at risk of COVID-19. This has been especially challenging in light of the fact some of its partner agencies have made the decision to close, and that the organization is now providing home-delivered meals to individuals who were served by Erie County’s congregate dining program, which also ceased operation.
“However, we have since been fortunate to have many new volunteers reach out to us and help us during these challenging times,” Daloia said. “Many individuals with newfound time on their hands have stepped up to assist with our home-delivered meal program and pack emergency food kits in our warehouse.”
Daloia credits FeedMore WNY’s staff, volunteers, board members, and community partners with making it possible for it to continue its mission, and finds hope in the “kindness and generosity of the Western New York community.”
“We have had many individuals and organizations reach out to us during this time to make a donation, provide food, or lend a hand with volunteer support,” he said. “It is truly humbling and inspiring.”