Freestore Foodbank Prepares for a Pandemic Holiday Season

In a season of extreme need and unprecedented restrictions, Freestore Foodbank counts on community support to feed our neighbors.

Food insecurity is a major concern in “normal” times, but in a year like this one when COVID-19 has upended every facet of life? Well, let’s just say the Freestore Foodbank has its work cut out for it this Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Illustration by Nien-Ken Alec Lu

In an average year, the organization sees more than 9,000 households during its four holiday food distribution days—those households represent a total of about 25,000 in­dividuals—in addition to the 200 or so daily visits the organization gets at its Liberty Street Market location in the months of November and December. This year, planning has ramped up to distribute more than 14,000 meal boxes during the holidays and to reach out to families who have not used its services before.

“Freestore’s work to feed our neighbors at this time of year allows families who are impacted by food insecurity to have a holiday experience,” says Freestore Foodbank President and CEO Kurt Reiber. “It’s critically important work that’s all the more important this year as we search for some sense of normalcy with the pandemic. Our holiday operation brings our team, our customers, our donors, and our volunteers together to share the holiday spirit.”

According to Feeding America, food insecurity in general has increased by 10 percent nationally because of the pandemic, says Trisha Rayner, Freestore’s chief development officer. “Since COVID began, we have distributed 50 percent more food in our network of pantries across the 20-county service area. Three-quarters of the people we’ve seen in these recent months have never utilized our services before.”

Reiber says the food bank hasn’t experienced these types of increases since 2008–2009. “During the recession, we knew that the economy would eventually recover and things would get back to normal,” he says. “Our clients, community partners, and volunteers knew that Freestore would bridge the gap and that there would be an end. We don’t know when the pandemic will end, which creates more uncertainty. And coupling that uncertainty with the struggling economy, we have a perfect storm of unparalleled proportion.”

At the same time demand is up, food donations are down significantly. Rayner says that due to the pandemic-related economic downturn, fewer food service companies are donating and there is less rescued food available from grocery stores—both prime sources in normal times—and Freestore has had to purchase more food than usual. Just like with retail grocery stores, there have been significant delays in getting timely food shipments, so the organization placed orders early where they could to ensure delivery for the Thanksgiving rush.

For the upcoming holiday events, the organization will continue to use its no-touch distribution model—packing boxes of food and giving clients “drive through” or “pick up” options to limit the amount of contact between them and workers and/or volunteers. Reiber notes that they’re trying to maintain connections while being so disconnected physically. “We may need to be socially distant to reduce the potential of COVID spread, but we share a common connection through the support we provide to our neighbors in need,” he says.

Indeed, Cincinnatians have found virtual ways to continue to help the organization along with monetary donations. So far this year, individuals and companies have held more than 100 virtual food drives ranging from $200 to $20,000 in donation size. And for its annual Labor Day weekend event, the Rubber Duck Regatta, the organization sold a record-setting 200,000 ducks online; each one purchased represented the equivalent of 15 meals. “The community’s generosity has been astounding and humbling,” says Rayner.

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