Second Harvest Responds to Growing Demand for Emergency Food Assistance
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the demand for emergency food assistance has skyrocketed. Second Harvest Heartland CEO Allison O’Toole says the need for meals has more than doubled in the past few weeks.
CCX News interviewed O’Toole this week via Skype to talk about how Second Harvest is meeting the growing demand for food and what people can do to help their organization.
Delane Cleveland, CCX News Reporter: What are things like there, or what have things been like since the outbreak started?
Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland: Like for so many of your viewers it’s been really hard. But I will tell you I am talking with you as the very proud CEO of an organization that has sprung into action to help the community like no other.
Second Harvest Heartland obviously is your neighbor in Brooklyn Park and our job is to help feed our hungry neighbors. We work with a network of wonderful food shelves and meal programs and they are seeing the demand for help and the demand for food skyrocket. We have seen… the need increased immediately and exponentially about two weeks ago. As decisions have been made that restrict our movement and restrict businesses, we certainly applaud Governor Walz in making tough decisions, but some of those decisions, some of the results of those decisions have a big impact on families. And that’s why we are here to help. We stand with the governor, with this community, ready to help.
Let me give you some specifics: We have seen the need for emergency food supply skyrocket. And so what we were trying to do, part of our response to this is to try and infuse the Hunger Relief Network with just more food. A lot of it is shelf stable, we’re trying to shore up cupboards of hungry neighbors just like we’re shoring up our own. We’re trying to add produce to that, always, we’re always trying to add fresh produce to that and just to try to get the immediate food supply out into the community.
The other thing we’re seeing is double the number of calls about SNAP, which is the supplemental nutrition assistance program, formerly known as food stamps. This program, we strongly believe, is designed for situations like this. Crisis moments when families need a little extra help making ends meet. And we have seen double the number of calls, double the number of applications. So they’re tracking very closely with the number of unemployment insurance applications we’re seeing. So our team is just in the highest gear ever.
The final thing we’re doing to respond is we’re trying to help the community by providing more, fresh prepared meals. We’re doing that through a new initiative called Minnesota Central Kitchen, which is a partnership with ChowGirls and Loaves and Fishes, with support of the Bachelor Farmer, Restaurant Alma, many many others to help use idle kitchens, idle teams from restaurants to prepare more meals, to help Loaves and Fishes, and other partners meet their increasing need.
I’m so happy to report that with that, Minnesota Central Kitchen partnership, we are on track to provide 10,000 meals a day at this point with a couple of kitchens up and running. The added benefit of the Minnesota Central Kitchen is that also puts people back to work who have been laid off or otherwise unemployed from some of the restaurants, closing operations for the time being.
Delane: How appreciative have those people been that they’re getting the opportunity to work at this time?
Allison: So appreciative. It’s hard for me to put it into words, frankly.
It’s also hard for me to put into words the need that we’re seeing. It is sobering, every single day, to see the number of people who need help, increase. And I know, so many of our area food shelves feel that same way. They are really the front line, trying to figure out and adjust their operations to work within the guidelines of social distancing and all of that. And also just trying to get food safely into the hands and into those cupboards of the families who need it most.
Delane: People who are sitting at home looking for ways to give back, how can they help you guys at Second Harvest?
Allison: There’s a couple of ways. First and foremost, financial donations. We can leverage a dollar into three meals, and so we’re very efficient. And that is the No. 1 way to help us. That is the most useful way to help us. We also are opening up our volunteer shifts again. We have included now, as we’ve opened up, some safety measures — including social distancing requirements, there is a questionnaire you have to answer about your own health and well-being before you come in, and you get your temperature checked. That is to make sure our volunteers are healthy and safe when they come into our operation, but we are welcoming volunteers again. All of that information is on 2harvest.org.
I’ll tell you one other thing, if your viewers have a connection to a local food shelf, they need help too. And many, many organizations, including CEAP right in Brooklyn Park, in our neighborhood, CAPI, they have needs that are really specific. Some around not only food, but also hygiene items. So if you go to those websites, you can find out specific needs of those local food shelves and really we’re all in this together. And whether you have a connection at the local level or for us who we distribute regionally in the state of Minnesota or western Wisconsin, we all need help. And the fastest way to do it is financially of course, but there are a couple other ways too.
Delane: What does volunteering look like in this age of social distancing? Have you figured that out yet or is it still a work in progress?
Allison: It’s always a work in progress as we learn more every day, but the beauty of it is, being a Brooklyn Park-based organization now, we have the room to allow for social distancing and to comply with the new restrictions. And so we feel really fortunate. We are so lucky to be part of the Brooklyn Park community, but our new facility… our newly-renovated facility allows for that. So we have no problem. Some of the smaller agencies had to make some tough decisions about their volunteer operations. We did too at a time, but we’re starting to get back up and running now. As are others as well. But we’re perfectly safe and we ask that healthy folks who are not showing symptoms of COVID-19 or the coronavirus, and that don’t have a temperature or haven’t been otherwise exposed or traveled are welcome to come in and help us meet this need by packing food boxes.