Highlighting the Helpers: The food bank workers at the center of a hunger storm

The images were stunning and daunting and grim. 

Hundreds of cars waiting for emergency food in Duquesne. The same at the Butler County Fairgrounds, and PPG Paints, and the airport weeks later. 

During this pandemic, the work of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank has produced visual markers of just how bad things had gotten — how shaken up our systems and safety nets are, how big the need has grown.

But food bank volunteers will be the first to tell you that need was already there — and will continue to be. Still, the last few months have made it all the more visible and vivid.

In fact, new polling finds 44 percent of Americans fear they won’t be able to afford food now. This as unemployment nears Depression-era levels and more than one-third of American households report losing income since the pandemic began. 

Sally Sally of Jefferson Hills is a three-year Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank volunteer. During this crisis, she quickly found herself working at emergency distribution sites as the food bank moved volunteers away from its packing facility and into remote, often contactless roles.  

Food bank volunteer Sally Sally, of Jefferson Hills. (📸: Courtesy of Sally Sally)

On assignment at the airport, she was part of a massive — and she says impeccably organized — delivery system that packed food and essential items into as many as 30 cars at once, filling over 800 of them in a matter of hours.

Some vehicles had more than one family inside. Sally says “That was the thing that hit me hardest.”

This is the fourth installment in our Highlighting the Helpers series. Read the first, second, third, and email us at hello@theincline.com if you know someone we should feature.

For five-year food bank volunteers John and Vicki Carson, the work has been a revelation — and that’s especially true as of late.

“I’ve never been in a situation where I experienced food insecurity,” John said by phone. “And working for the food bank, you realize it’s an underlying issue in so many lives. It’s a good thing to experience for someone like me.” 

Thousands of people volunteer with the food bank annually.

John and Vicki are Pittsburgh transplants now living in Swisshelm Park. Both are retired, John after working as a graphic designer and “computer guy” and Vicki after working as an ATF inspector, a medical secretary, and more. 

Vicki and John Carson. (📸: Courtesy of the Carsons)

During the pandemic, they’ve continued doing home deliveries for the food bank throughout the Mon Valley.

“We wear masks and gloves,” Vicki said. “We’re not supposed to go inside, but sometimes they come to the door and they seem so grateful.” 

Like many volunteers, they’ve set aside concerns for their own health and grown accustomed to closely monitoring themselves for signs of illness. 

“It’s just a great feeling to do this work,” John said. “I want people to be able to depend on this service and getting what they need. And the people at the food bank are just wonderful, and the people you give food to are always so thankful and happy.” 

Vicki added, “It’s a lot more satisfying than doing something because you have to. And I think people absolutely need this help right now…”  

In March, a day after images of cars thronged outside a food bank event in Duquesne went viral, Food Bank CEO Lisa Scales told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that demand had grown five-fold in the first weeks of the pandemic. If it continued to grow at such a pace, Scales said she feared “we might run out of food” eventually.

The food bank has seen fluctuating turnout at some events since then and says its supply is steady, but by no means has the urgency faded.

The food bank has distributed more than 1.1 million pounds of food to more than 23,500 people during the pandemic.

If you’re interested in helping, you can donate here and sign up to volunteer here. If you need food assistance, find help here

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