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COVID-19: Demand grows for free groceries, but packing and distributing them safely can be tricky

'There's all these new rules you have to live by'
Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-07 17:34:26-04

CINCINNATI — Just a month ago, Megan Hague worked as the receptionist at Peaslee Neighborhood Center in Over-the-Rhine, greeting visitors and guiding them to the many programs Peaslee offers.

But with the center closed to the public as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hague’s job has changed.

Now she is the center’s lead grocery packer, an essential worker helping keep the neighborhood’s families fed during the crisis. The highly contagious novel coronavirus has made the job much more complicated than it might sound.

“The first week was a little stressful because in my mind, I was like, ‘I’m packing groceries. That’s my job,’” Hague said. “But suddenly there’s all these new rules you have to live by. And trying to get that ingrained in your head is not super easy.”

A growing number of people in Greater Cincinnati are in desperate need of free groceries. How that food is packed and delivered could make a big difference in containing COVID-19.

Hague follows a list of rules to pack groceries safely so her work doesn’t contribute to the spread of the virus. The Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center, which is part of the Midwest Consortium for Hazardous Waste Worker Training, trained her.

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Megan Hague packing groceries at Peaslee Neighborhood Center.

“It’s important for all of us that we are taking this seriously,” said Magda Orlander, program coordinator with the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center. “Now we definitely have to be considering ourselves as hazmat workers. We have to raise the expectations. Our volunteers should be safe. Workers should be able to be safe. And everybody should be doing whatever they can to make that happen.”

The Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center allowed a WCPO photographer to record its practices in hopes that other local organizations will adopt more stringent food-packing and distribution protocols.

Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center director Brennan Grayson noted that the food service union, United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 75, has been working to negotiate better protections for the front-line workers deemed essential during the pandemic. Nonprofit organizations working to pack and distribute food should be providing those same protections, he said.

“If we can’t guarantee that to the public, then we can’t continue to do the work,” Grayson said. “That’s the gut-check moment that a lot of the nonprofit world should be undergoing right now.”

It’s coming at a time when there are more people in need than ever.

More than 900,000 pounds of food in a week

Freestore Foodbank and its more than 500 community partners over the 20-county region have seen an overwhelming increase in the need for food, said Trisha Rayner, the food bank’s vice president of external affairs.

“In the last two weeks, we have seen that demand double,” Rayner said. “The first week that we saw the coronavirus have some shutdowns, it was the first time in Foodbank history that we did over 900,000 pounds of food out the door in one week.”

But as demand has surged, food pantries through the region have been stymied, she said.

Most pantries are staffed by volunteers, and the volunteers tend to be older and more vulnerable to COVID-19, Rayner said.

Last week, the Ohio National Guard helped the organization pack more than 250,000 pounds of food in emergency boxes, she said, and the Kentucky National Guard has begun to help this week, too.

On top of the growing need and volunteer shortage, Rayner said Freestore Foodbank has been changing the way it works to make food packing and distribution safe.

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WCPO observed this food drop off in Northern Kentucky last month that didn't use any social distancing. The faces have been blurred so as not to embarrass anyone involved.

For example, as drivers take emergency food boxes to participating food pantries, Rayner said the drivers now deliver to partner agencies with no contact. Freestore Foodbank has asked the other agencies not to help unload the trucks and to keep their distance until after the drivers leave.

“We don’t have very many drivers,” Rayner said. “And we want to make sure they are safe, and they are practicing physical distancing.”

Drivers are instructed to clean their trucks multiple times throughout the day, she said, and they also wear gloves.

To distribute food at its own locations, Freestore Foodbank has been following protocols established by other food pantries in parts of the country that have been dealing with the crisis longer than Greater Cincinnati has, she said.

“Their practices and policies have helped us turn on a dime,” she said.

The organization tries to help clients maintain social distance and is using tables to create a barrier between the clients and the staff, in addition to including written information about other assistance in every emergency food box. Freestore Foodbank also is advising its partner food pantries on how to do the same, she said.

“The need is going to keep going up,” Rayner said. “Our challenge really is just in the supply chain part in getting access and purchasing that food.”

Cincinnati Public Schools has been working to keep its students fed, too, with 23 meal pick-up sites throughout the district.

Families are instructed to remain in their cars while picking up food to maintain social distancing, communications officer Fran Russ told WCPO in an email.

"Families walking up to a site must also maintain the required six feet for social distancing to curb the spread of COVID-19," Russ wrote. "Also, meals cannot be consumed on the premises to avoid people congregating at schools."

Employees of the Student Dining Services Department must take their temperatures before reporting to work, she said, and are not to report to work if they are sick.

"So far, Student Dining Services has served 60,000 meals to date and look to continue serving more meals in the weeks ahead," Russ wrote. "But the health and safety of our staff and families will remain paramount."

'We're all trying to get this food out quickly'

Packing and distributing the food in a way that is safe and responsible is tough, Orlander said.

“Not gonna lie. It’s been a little challenging,” she said. “It’s hard to do things differently.”

It also can feel more time-consuming, Hague said.

Unloading the packed bags at the drop-off site requires a triangle-shaped configuration of three people, she said.

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Unloading the packed bags requires a triangle formation to keep all three people at least six feet apart from each other.

And only two people are involved in packing the groceries at any one time. That makes it easier for each person to see where the other is in the room and maintain at least six feet of distance between them.

Hague and Orlander have tape on the floor in various spots at the Peaslee Center, noting which spot is six feet from the entrance, for example.

They also have set up three large tables so that one table remains between the two people at all times. If the two packers need to interact, they use the middle table, Hague said. One person can drop off something at the middle table and then walk away before the other person picks it up, she said.

“It’s a lot of communication, a lot of reminding each other,” she said. “There’s a lot of verbal saying what you’re doing out loud even if it’s not necessary, but it’s kind of the best way to keep it in your mind.”

Orlander said the key is to follow the proper safety protocol, as strange as it might feel.

· Stay home if you’re sick.

· Maintain at least six feet of distance between yourself and another person.

· Cough into your elbow or a tissue you can throw away.

· Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds.

· And sanitize surfaces – but be careful with the chemicals you are using.

“I know the six-foot thing especially is really hard because, you know, we’re all scrambling. We’re all trying to get this food out quickly. How do we unload a truck or package things in the same space while also staying apart,” she said. “You’re tempted to hold doors open for people or hand things to them. No! Now is not the time for that.”

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Magda Orlander packs groceries at Peaslee Neighborhood Center.

Personal protective equipment is the last line of defense, she said, and doesn’t replace the need to stay six feet away from other people.

“The more people do it, the more we’re all on board with this, the better our chances are of flattening that curve,” Orlander said. “We keep each other safe by keeping ourselves safe and respecting that together.”

Information about the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center and its training programs is available online.

Freestore Foodbank has a list of resources online for where people can get emergency food assistance. It includes a regularly updated list of community food pantries and their hours of operation and a link to an Indiana food assistance availability map.

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To reach Lucy, email lucy.may@wcpo.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.