When the country started to shut down in mid-March, when all around the United States, and in particular in Western Pennsylvania people were losing their jobs and schools were closing because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Lisa Scales knew the demands on the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank would grow.
But she never could have imagined they would grow the way they did and at the pace they did.
"I have been in food banking for almost 25 years," said Scales, the President and CEO of the Food Bank. "I have responded to disasters. I was in New York after 9/11 helping to get food down to Ground Zero. I was in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina at the joint field office ensuring folks in New Orleans and Louisiana had food. But I have never seen anything like this. The dramatic increase in need almost overnight was so significant. It caused us as an organization to stop what we were doing, what we had been doing, and do whatever it took to help with the increase in need. We weren't stopping what we were doing as far as our pantry network, but just looking at what we needed to do to prepare for the need we were starting to see."
While they knew they had to step up, the reality was it couldn't be done alone. They needed help. They needed the community behind them as they had a fight on their hands. A fight they had to win.
With schools closed, and a long summer ahead, children all over the Pittsburgh region were going to be without meals that had been provided through schools. These children were in danger and Pittsburgh stepped up.
The Steelers joined the fight, in particular helping with a Summer Food Program that will have 33 distribution sites where food will be distributed to children in communities that are at the highest risk of food insecurity.
Working in conjunction and with the support of the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, the Food Bank is benefitting from donations made during the NFL Draft-A-Thon, including personal donations from the Rooney family, Lebda family and ownership, coaches and players.
"We knew very early on food security was going to be a major issue during the pandemic and beyond," said Bobbi Watt Geer, President and CEO of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. "We have been working to fill those gaps, but quickly understood many summer food programs wouldn't be operating as normal. Because we work closely with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, they alerted us that there were 33 communities at high risk of not providing food for kids over the summer and was there something we could do to assist.
"It just so happened it was right around that time I talked to Mr. (Art) Rooney about the Draft-A-Thon and part of the proceeds would support the United Way. I started a discussion with him saying there is a significant need, what would you think about a portion of the Draft-A-Thon money supporting the establishment of 33 sites to help communities in Allegheny County. He was happy to see that happen.
"We have the 2-1-1 service where people contact us for help for meeting their basic needs for food, shelter and utility assistance. We could see after a couple of weeks after having our first cases of COVID-19 in Allegheny County and Southwestern Pennsylvania people started to get laid off from work. You started to have economic challenges. We started to see inquires about getting access to food rise at that point. It was overwhelming to see the amount of need. We were really proud to be able to work with the Food Bank, the Steelers, and other community organizations."
The goal was to provide 45,000 meals for kids over the summer. But as we all know, goals are just a number that is set. The number of meals that will be served, with distributions starting well before the summer months, is astounding.
"I was pulling some data and so far, it's just shy of 202,000 meals have been served to kids since mid-March," said Watt Geer. "There have been other funds that have helped support that, but there would have been no way for us to set up the additional sites with the agencies without the Draft-a-Thon.
"We anticipated 45,000 meals, but it has been almost 202,000. We far exceeded that mark. It has been really the bright spot, if you could pull out a bright spot of living through a pandemic, it has been the degree of partnerships we have seen in the Pittsburgh region to address the need. That has been partnerships with the Steelers, our corporate community, foundation community and our non-profit organizations who have been so dedicated to making sure people have their needs met. It's been an incredible bright spot throughout this crisis.
"I can't say thank you enough to the Steelers organization Mr. Rooney. Everyone has been so incredibly supportive. It makes such a difference to kids and families in the community."
Every dollar donated to the Food Bank can provide five meals. They make every dollar, every penny count. And they know it couldn't have been done without the support they received.
"This is what Pittsburgh does best. We lend a hand to a neighbor in need. We help others," said Scales. "This is really about the helpers in the Pittsburgh region. I look to our sports teams, I look to the Steelers, as a shining light, as a great example of giving back to the community at the organization level and player level. I know players reached out and wanted to give their funds and time to the community during such a difficult time. I love people stepping up during time of crisis. Because this was so significant, and wide-spread and ongoing, and people are suffering so much, losing their jobs. People feel a sense of helplessness. I believe that our sports teams, our heroes stepping up and giving back inspired others in the community to do the same and want to reach out and volunteer. We have seen such a response just in the last 3 months.
"We feel blessed to have such a great partner in the Steelers not just now, but really throughout our history as an organization. The Steelers have been with us since the beginning when we opened our doors in 1980. Also, the United Way. What a great partner they are. We are all so committed to ensure no child goes to bed hungry, that the seniors have enough food when they can't leave their house. We are all doing this together."