As Thanksgiving drew closer and Helping Harvest volunteers handed out turkeys, pumpkin pies and fixings to 5,000 struggling families in recent weeks, they continued to meet a surge in demand unlike any the organization has seen before.
The coronavirus pandemic has created a need for food in Berks and Schuylkill counties this year that’s unprecedented.
"It’s not even close," said Helping Harvest spokesman Doug Long when comparing pre-pandemic demand to what it’s become. "The numbers are through the roof."
The food bank has been in existence since 1983, known until May 1, 2019, as the Greater Berks Food Bank.
Helping Harvest has 320 food distribution partners in Berks and Schuylkill, including food pantries, soup kitchens, mobile markets, homeless shelters and school programs.
Many people in both counties have lost jobs, suffered pay cuts or reduced hours due to changes brought on by the virus, said Jay Worrall, president.
While Helping Harvest has a lot of new clients, some of the increase is from existing clients whose already shaky financial footing has gotten worse and need additional food, he said.
Many were already having a tough time making ends meet, and are now deciding what bills they can go without paying, he said, so sometimes food purchases are neglected in favor of rent, electricity and medicine.
'Never had to say no'
So far the organization has been able to help keep everyone fed due largely to people and businesses in the community donating so generously, Worrall said. But he worries that as the pandemic stretches on, it could reach a point where Helping Harvest can no longer keep up.
Things will become especially difficult entering the new year unless Congress approves funding to replace the federal CARES Act funding that food distribution programs are receiving to cope with the pandemic, he said.
Without replacement funding, Helping Harvest will be forced into a position it dreads: deciding which people get food and which don’t. Worrall said that’s a last resort.
"We’ve never had to say no to anyone, and we don’t want to start," he said. "For some people it would be catastrophic. Without money, I don’t know where else they’d get food."
Another option would be to cut back the amount of food it gives to clients, which is also a tough call, he said.
"That means seniors will be hungry and children will be hungry and families will be hungry," he said.
Helping Harvest typically distributes about 560,000 pounds of food a month in Berks and Schuylkill, but since March that amount has climbed to nearly 1 million.
So while last year’s total distribution totaled about 7 million pounds, this year it could reach 10 million pounds.
Helping Harvest in January had budgeted $384,000 to buy food, but it has already spent more than $3 million.
The week prior to Thanksgiving was Helping Harvest's busiest ever, with the 380,446 pounds of food it distributed representing a more than 150% increase from the same time last year.
There is no way to say exactly how long the pandemic and high demand will last, but it seems certain to stretch well into next year, Worrall said.
Helping Harvest has had to buy two new trucks and new equipment for its warehouse while hiring more employees for the added work.
The organization traditionally receives about 90% of its food through USDA programs and contributions from the retail industry, particularly supermarket chains. The rest came from food bought through local donations.
Though the USDA slightly increased its share, the supermarkets have not been able to give as much this year because they have less food nearing its expiration date on shelves as more people shop for dinner instead of eating out, Worrall said.
That’s left the community to make up much of the difference, and it has, which is fortunate for those in need, he said.
It’s been especially impressive since many of the donors are experiencing income loss themselves, he said.
"We live in a very generous community," he said. “We have a lot of caring individuals in both counties. We take care of our own."
To keep up with the increased demand, Helping Harvest sped up its plan to add seven more mobile market sites, and though several pantries were closed for a few months in the spring and summer as they figured out how to properly distance everyone, the organization made sure their clients were covered.
As the work for Helping Harvest has increased, the number of volunteers has declined, with some stopping that work due to their concerns about getting too close to others nowadays.
But many of those who remain have increased their hours, whether they be retirees, members of social organizations or workers loaned by their employers.
"They’re people who are concerned and want to help out in this time of need," Long said.
Helping Harvest’s workers and volunteers have put their own health concerns aside to work overtime and keep the community fed, Worrall said.
"They’re doing heroes' work," he said. "It’s really inspiring to be around."
Clients used to pick their own food from pantries, but that frozen meat, fresh produce, bread and the non-perishable items are now boxed by employees and placed in their cars — or their carts for those who walk up — to keep people properly distanced and mitigate spread of the virus.
During a recent food distribution in Bernville, families who came through the line appreciated those efforts.
Among them was borough resident Joanne Faust, who was picking up groceries for several families she’s friends with.
For one of the families, the pandemic is the thing that pushed them into financial trouble, she said.
"They were getting short on funds, and this (the pandemic) made it harder," she said.
Faust knows there are times when some of her friends only have bread to eat, and maybe some jelly, so the Helping Harvest distributions are a godsend, she said.
"I can’t believe what they hand out," she said as volunteers filled her car with boxes and bags that included fresh fruit and salad items. "I’m so grateful. I never knew that a group could be this helpful."
Another woman from the community who asked that her name be withheld said she was there on behalf of three friends, two of whom lost jobs or had hours cut during the pandemic and therefore needed food.
"There is so much going on and people are struggling," she said. "And I know they’re thankful for the help."