With schools closed down and people losing jobs in the restaurant and construction industries as the state works to slow the spread of the coronavirus, more families across the state are looking for food support. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with the CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank, Catherine D'Amato, about how facilities are responding to the pandemic and resources available to families. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: You work with 500 agencies at 70 different sites. Are you meeting demand at this critical time?
Catherine D'Amato: We are. It's 530 agencies in 190 cities and towns, to give you that magnitude. And then across the state, our system serves about 1,000 agencies. And these are pantries at shelters, after school programs, elder meals, anything that you can imagine that's serving food, either with a box of food or a meal, that's a nonprofit organization.
And yes, we are seeing increased demand from our network across the state. At the Greater Boston Food Bank in the last week, we've seen a 50 percent increase in their orders. So we provide pallets and pallets of food to these programs and then they in turn are facing the customer directly or the client. But a 50 percent increase is substantial. On Friday, we had the largest day of distribution at the Greater Boston Food Bank in its nearly 40-year history.
Mathieu: Are you pulling from your warehouses or are you forced to find new sources of food to meet that demand?
D'Amato: A great question. So for the Greater Boston Food Bank, we have food donors that would probably be very familiar to your listeners: major retailers, wholesalers, etc. We also have a state commodity program where we're able to purchase about $25 million worth of food very directly, designed to support our Massachusetts farmers and Massachusetts businesses. And then lastly, we handle federal commodities, so a variety of USDA foods which have been very much in the news.
So our food supply right now is steady. Our supply chain has plenty in it. Yet, like anybody, we don't know when or if that will change, but we have a high level of confidence that that supply chain will not experience major disruptions.
Mathieu: I mentioned schools as well. The food bank is storing school meals in your warehouse while public schools are closed?
D'Amato: We were asked by the City of Boston to help them manage a volume of what they call emergency meals. So once the city or any school district goes into a close like this, it looks very much like summer feeding programs, which many of your listeners might be familiar with. So these are prepared, packaged items that [are] more like a grab and go, so they can give to any child in, let's say, Boston a morning meal and a lunch meal. But they have to go to a particular site. Those sites are available on the City of Boston's website and they are available in your listeners' areas. If they go to their city and town, they will see where those meal sites are located. Any school child that is in public school is eligible to receive those meals right now.
Mathieu: Great to know. What precautions are you taking in this very challenging time here when handling or getting food to people? It brings its own risks with the coronavirus.
D'Amato: Another excellent question. The Greater Boston Food Bank is taking all the appropriate precautions with our own team, which we now have only essential personnel at the facility receiving, storing and distributing food to our agencies. So out of our 120-person staff, the majority of them are working from home, so that helps.
We've also limited the visitation into the food bank. Normally we have 100 volunteers a day. We [now] have about 100 volunteers a week. Those are under very strict precautions and controls coming into the building in smaller groups and working in various parts of the facility, not necessarily together. Many of our agencies as well, if you can imagine, if you needed food a month ago you might go to a local food pantry [and] be there with many people to pick up a bag of groceries to go home. What's happening is pantries and meal programs are doing drive-bys, or what we call "grab and go." These foods are put into bags and boxes for families, [and] they're handed to them at a reasonable distance [and in] some cases, their cars. They're coming in one at a time, not 10 at a time. So the pantries as well have taken great precautions to ensure that the public who needs food can get the food that they need with safety in mind consistently.
Mathieu: That's all great to know. Some people have never gone through this before; they've never had to go out and find resources like yours, particularly those who are not SNAP recipients. How should they go about finding you, people who are essentially not on food stamps?
D'Amato: Two resources are being used on a regular basis for the food bank. One is that anyone can go to our website, which is GBFB.org and look for the "need food" icon. Click on it, put in your zip code and it will tell you all the programs in your community that are available to you. That's one site.
The other is to use the Mass 2-1-1. Just dial 2-1-1 — this is a state-run resource on all social services. It's run by the United Way of Tri-County. And lastly, Project Bread operates a food resource hotline. I'll give that number. It's 1-800-645-8333. That hotline has information both about school meals and programs in your community that families can go to. Remember, the school meals only serve the child that's in school, not the family. Families [that] are going to need food, they need to look at our web site, GBFB.org, call 2-1-1 or use the Project Bread hotline.
(Project Bread corrects with WGBH News "The 1100 plus sites set up across the state are available for all children, 0-18, not only school-aged children only")
Mathieu Great information from Catherine D'Amato, the CEO of the Greater Boston Food Bank. Catherine, thank you for everything you're doing and for talking with us this morning.
D'Amato: You're very welcome. I do just want to say that if people do want to help, they can go also to that same site and give a cash donation. I know people are feeling like they're not sure what they can do. Financial resources and volunteering are the two things. We've had incredible donations, commitments from corporations like Biogen and the City of Boston, and so we are just grateful to all your listeners. Stay safe. Stay home.