United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania is announcing its next phase of response efforts to assist those who are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a summer food program. Food insecurity in particular remains a crucial issue, especially among children. According to the Brookings Institution, new national surveys fielded since the pandemic began show that hunger among children is higher than it ever has been on record. The reimagined Summer Food Program is being made possible by the Steelers organization, including the Rooney family, Lebda family and ownership, coaches and players from the Steelers who made generous donations to United Way during the NFL's Draft-A-Thon in April.
In response to the growing need across the Pittsburgh region, United Way is partnering with the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank to build an expanded network of food providers that can fill service gaps in high-need communities this summer. Because school and out-of-school time programs have been closed, many of the typical ways children receive food have been disrupted as well.
Starting this month, the program will establish 33 distribution sites with the goal of providing more than 44,000 meals over the coming months. Food will be distributed to children in communities that are at the highest risk of continued food insecurity. Between March 16 and April 30, United Way's 24/7 2-1-1 helpline received nearly 2,300 contacts for food assistance, a quadrupled increase compared to the same time last year.
"The pandemic has deeply impacted thousands of children in our area and millions around the country," said Bobbi Watt Geer, president and CEO of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. "We're grateful to the Steelers organization for their generosity and for recognizing this critical need in our community. Food will continue to be a large concern over the next several months as this situation further unfolds."
"I am pleased that Steelers ownership, coaches and players have come together to partner with the United Way to support these efforts to address food insecurity throughout the region," said Steelers President Art Rooney II.
United Way is also taking steps to address food insecurity and other local needs during the pandemic:
● Emergency Basic Needs Network: United Way's Emergency Basic Needs Network offers one-time grants to help financially struggling individuals and families. Since the pandemic began, more than 1,000 grant applications have been submitted, with funds going directly to partner agencies that provide critical services to people in need. Referrals are sent to agencies every day based on the applications that are received. To ensure equity amid growing disparities during COVID-19, United Way is proposing that disbursement of grants focuses more directly on communities of color, women, people with disabilities and other vulnerable groups. The network is currently comprised of 10 partners, including Bethlehem Haven, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Greensburg, Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, Center for Community Resources in Butler, Community Human Services, Jewish Family and Community Services, Macedonia FACE, North Hills Community Outreach, South Hills Interfaith Movement and the YWCA.
● Students and Families Food Relief Fund: United Way continues to grow its Students and Families Food Relief Fund, which launched on March 30 as a result of a $1 million donation from the PNC Foundation. United Way has partnered with Eat'n Park Hospitality Group and other local providers to give more than 250,000 meals to students and families in low-income communities across the region. More than 150,000 meals have been distributed so far across Allegheny, Butler and Westmoreland counties.
● Transportation Network: United Way has teamed up with four transportation partners to deliver more than 40,000 meals and 5,375 pounds of boxed food to children and families in nine counties, including Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland. The Transportation Network also delivered 1,253 boxes of personal protective equipment (PPE) across the region. In Butler County, through the expanded Transportation Network, United Way has helped deliver food and PPE, including meals to seniors and food boxes to people who cannot attend drive-up distributions.
● Summer camps: In coordination with The Heinz Endowments, the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh, YMCA, Boys and Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania, Carnegie Museums, Allegheny County Health and Human Services Departments, Dr. Thomas Walsh from Highmark and Dr. Liz Miller from UPMC/Children's Hospital, United Way is leading a coalition to garner resources and guidance to help establish in-person summer camps for students. The program will be critical as counties begin reopening and employees return to work, leaving parents with concerns about finding safe and adequate child care during the summer.
● Volunteer engagement: United Way is planning to safely engage volunteers during COVID-19 to continue addressing the community's urgent needs. Volunteer activities include sending cards to seniors to help alleviate feelings of isolation, collecting cleaning supplies and other protective equipment for families and making activity kits to engage children. On June 20, participating volunteers will be able to drop off their projects at United Way, who will get them to agency partners that are providing direct service to those in need.
● Seniors: Through its Open Your Heart to a Senior program, United Way has developed a grocery shopping and delivery service for older adults and people with disabilities in Westmoreland County. The service allows high-risk individuals to remain in their homes while having food and other essential items delivered to them at no charge.
Since the crisis began, United Way has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 response spanning its five-county region in southwestern Pennsylvania. The organization was an early partner in establishing the Emergency Action Fund, helped survey 1,600 local nonprofits to determine the region's most pressing needs and leveraged its 2-1-1 data to understand and anticipate which issues should be addressed immediately.
With more people in need of critical resources like food and financial assistance, United Way increased its 2-1-1 capacity and has also assisted the Allegheny County Health Department to handle overflow calls. Recently, United Way expanded its team of 2-1-1 Resource Navigators and trained dozens of United Way staff members to help manage volume. From March 16 to April 30, 2-1-1 responded to more than 37,000 requests for assistance, with the greatest concerns regarding housing, food and utility assistance. Compared to the same time last year, the helpline has seen a 131% increase in volume, including self-help through its website. Calls, texts and chats have also more than doubled, further showing the rising need in the community.
"United Way was built for this moment," said Rich Harshman, board chair of United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania. "Over the past few months, they've done an incredible job of identifying urgent needs, finding solutions and establishing important partnerships. As a result, they are well suited to continue leading our community through this crisis and helping those who need it most. I have never been prouder to be associated with this organization."
About United Way of Southwestern PA – United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania, serving Allegheny, Butler, Westmoreland, Fayette and southern Armstrong counties, leads and mobilizes the caring power of individuals, the business community and organizations to help local people in need measurably improve their lives. United Way creates long-lasting change for the betterment of our community.