As CEO of Island Harvest Food Bank, Randi Shubin Dresner leads an organization that provides hundreds of thousands of meals annually. They have been busier than ever amid COVID-19. We talked with her about hunger on Long Island and what’s being done to help.
Did demand rise during the pandemic? Within weeks our business increased 500 percent as far as purchasing. We pivoted and changed our programs to accommodate that. We did more than 1,000 events distributing food across Long Island between March and the end of June at schools, in communities, and big distribution sites at parking lots. We partnered with Nassau County. We distributed to over 20,000 residents through a Nassau County contract alone.
Has Island Harvest changed due to COVID-19 and how? Until March, we were a food bank providing food and support and services to individuals in the community and doing a lot of our work through a member network of nonprofit community-based organizations. We were helping about 300,000 people in all and distributing about 10 million pounds of food and other services. We helped people with SNAP outreach and enrollment, nutrition education, job training programs, food safety programs. When March 9 hit, we pivoted to open our emergency resource center. A hundred percent of our work changed to be responsive to the needs of the community.
How does Island Harvest get food? Island Harvest before March depended on donated food. About 85 percent of our product was donated. The remainder was purchased from retailers, wholesalers, distributors and in small part from the community. On March 9, we pivoted. Almost instantaneously our food donation dried up completely. Supermarkets were overwhelmed from the community coming in, getting food because of the pandemic.
So how did you get food once COVID-19 hit? It took a little time for food banks to make connections with farmers and producers with the support of the federal government and, in our case, New York State and Gov. Cuomo. It took a couple of months for this to get in place. Gov. Cuomo awarded the food banks across the state $25 million to buy New York State-grown product from farmers and producers. We got over $700,000 in funds. We needed that food quickly and we got it in tractor trailer loads. They brought it to us. We didn’t have to pick it up.
How do you keep your own people safe? We instituted new protocols. We identified our assets — our staff, our volunteers and our food. Only a select number of people are allowed in our warehouses. We did distributions outside. We got a large tent donated that is permanently in our parking lot. And we do a lot of work outside under the tent safely. We identified staff who could work full time remotely or hybrid coming into the office a few days a week. We also identified people who would just work in the field and not come back into the office.
How do you and others at Island Harvest handle this personally? Emergency work is very hard physically and emotionally. We started with an adrenaline rush that fueled our first couple of months. Then exhaustion followed for a few months. Then a realization that this is what our work will look like for the foreseeable future. We are essential workers, Island Harvest Food Bank staff.
Where do things stand today? We don’t believe we’ll ever go back to where we were as an organization before. We’re a different organization now because of the response work we provided. We brought new programs into our organization and we’ll continue those.
Are you seeing a return to normal? It’s a different kind of normal. We have a different work plan now. We’re doing a lot of direct delivery to people’s houses. People are homebound. They have COVID and disabilities. We opened up some direct delivery programs. We fielded 15,000 phone calls between March and June. We had to learn how to field those calls. There’s an increase in calls from people who need help and we can help.
What are you seeing and doing for Thanksgiving and Christmas? We are running our regular turkey and trimming collection campaign, collecting turkeys and funds and trimmings from the community. This year demand is up. Because of the pandemic, most people aren’t having large family gatherings. We’re asking the community for an increase in donations and smaller turkeys.