Fighting food insecurity in Philadelphia amid coronavirus pandemic | The Triangle

Fighting food insecurity in Philadelphia amid coronavirus pandemic

The non-profit Sharing Excess is donating food to different hunger-relief organizations and homeless shelters throughout Philadelphia. (Photograph courtesy of Evan Ehlers.)

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney ordered all restaurants and bars in the city to restrict operations to pick-up and delivery March 16 to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While some establishments were able to continue their services through delivery options, others had to temporarily close — leaving behind a large excess of food.

Philadelphians then found out that organizations fighting food insecurity and relocating food are essential for the city’s survival, in this situation more than ever.

One of these organizations is Sharing Excess, a food recovery nonprofit born in Drexel. Sharing Excess’ president Evan Ehlers said they have seen an increase in calls from their partners since the closure of dine-in establishments. Outside of their usual network, other restaurants, hotels and food chains with leftover food at risk of becoming waste reached out.

Currently, Sharing Excess has collected over 47,000 pounds of food from companies like Saxbys, Hotel Sheraton, White Dog Cafe, Fresco Juices, Snap Kitchen, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Lavazza Coffee, Giant Heirloom, Shoprite and Trader Joe’s.

After the nonprofit collects the food, they deliver it to hunger relief organizations, homeless shelters, food pantries and soup kitchens within their network.

“We prefer to deliver this food to organizations that are really doing more than feeding people — places that are proving rehabilitation activities or workforce training opportunities,” Ehlers said.

Because of the global crisis, about 50 percent of their patron organizations have closed or stopped accepting donations. The largest, Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, where Sharing Excess used to deliver 30 percent of their food, stopped accepting donations for health safety reasons, Ehlers shared. This gap was refilled with new partnerships established during the pandemic.

The City of Philadelphia gathered with the main hunger relief organizations of the area, including Sharing Excess.

“Philadelphia is a very grassroots city, but the nonprofit scene is equally grassroots and also very collaborative,” Ehlers said. “So when all of this happened, the city kind of put it in our hands to work together to come up with a plan of how we are going to support people over the next few months with each organization playing their own pivotal role.”

With the help of these organizations, Philadelphia has been able to coordinate 40 meal sites in the area every Monday and Thursday morning. Each site gives two weeks worth of food to around 400 people daily. Philabundance and The Share Food Program are two of the main providers for this program.

Sharing Excess is also packing groceries and sending them to Philadelphia seniors who are unable to visit the meal sites, as they are part of the vulnerable population.

The nonprofit is sending produce boxes to college students who are struggling with food. The effort is called the Food Scholarship Program and was established with the Misfits Market.

“Over 50 percent of college students are considered food-insecure [and] can’t afford three meals per day according to national averages, but Philadelphia tends to be a little higher than that,” Ehlers said.

Ehlers assured that Sharing Excess’ drives, some paid and some volunteer, are taking appropriate health safety measures.

“They have to [use] masks, gloves, bottles of hand sanitizer and they have to wipe down their cars every time they complete a delivery,” Ehlers said.

They are utilizing a new “stock, drop and roll” protocol, where drivers pick up the deliveries and drop them off at their destination without human interaction.

“In normal circumstances, we usually have the courtesy of helping our partners take the boxes inside their establishments and help them open the boxes so they know what’s inside, but right now, it is not really safe to do that,” Ehlers said.

Photograph courtesy of Evan Ehlers.

Aside from food donations, volunteers also skyrocketed for Sharing Excess, which received over 100 applications last month. Ehlers said they limited the number of volunteers they accepted to avoid exposing more people than necessary.

One of the food organizations that receives food from Sharing Excess is The Sunday Love Project, a mission to share food with the homeless and build a community. Many Drexel students volunteer there to fulfill their civic engagement requirements.

The Sunday Love Project, which is located in the basement of the Church of the Holy Trinity in Rittenhouse Square, usually serves dinner every Sunday and Tuesday and brunch every Monday. Margaux Murphy, the founder of the Sunday Love Project, said they had to change their structure amid the pandemic.

The Sunday Love Project is still hosting services at the church by providing pick-up meals on Sundays and Tuesdays. In addition, they travel to Kensington — the neighborhood where Murphy lives, which has some of the highest heroin use rates in the nation — to distribute meals.

They have also had to increase the number of meals as more homeless come to their doors. Murphy says this is because numerous shelters have closed, and many people have lost their jobs and are relying on these meals.

“Since this started, we have gotten an insane amount of generous donations and we are very, very grateful,” Murphy said.

In the last month, the Sunday Love Project was able to collect around $30,000, and two-thirds of that was donated by Philadelphians. They also started a weekly “sandwich sign-up” online and have received around 4,100 sandwiches in the first month. Murphy said that people want to help from home, and this is a good, safe project for families.

Murphy said that they are also preparing a project with their chef Lauren Hooks and the nonprofit Sharing Excess to launch a feeding point at South Street. It would serve 300 boxes of food twice a week.

The Sunday Love team has maintained the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention while preparing their meals. They also try to maintain social distancing when distributing meals.

“The people who came to pick up meals for the church service used to sit distantly in Rittenhouse Park while they waited for their meals, but we got complaints … because they broke into fights, so now they just line outside the church and … that has worked out,” Murphy said. “Last service, we were able to do it in just 15 minutes — they just wait and, as soon as they have their food, they leave. They understand that if they can’t keep it under control, then we’re going to lose the privilege to serve them.”

This is not the situation in Kensington, though.

“In Kensington, they don’t understand the severity of the situation, they’re still clustered together,” Murphy said. “We have a hard enough time with the people not sharing needles, so with social distancing, it’s really complicated for them to [understand]. If you don’t have access to the news and you just live in the streets, you don’t understand the gravity of the situation because you’re not seeing anything different.”

Murphy said she has seen other organizations, like Philabundance and the Share Project, distributing food boxes in the neighborhood, but she has also noticed other critical services that have stopped amid the pandemic. McPherson Square Library in Kensington, known to locals as “needle park,” is usually cleaned on a regular basis — now, it is littered with needles and people are walking their dogs there.

“We are doing what we can, but we can only do so much,” Murphy said.

Correction: Evan Ehlers was mistakenly misquoted in last week’s issue as saying Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission was closed. The organization is open but stopped receiving donations for health safety reasons. The Triangle regrets this error.