For the third year, Steelers players are leading the Steelers Social Justice Grant program. Players are making donations to local organizations that are having an impact on the community, and the Steelers are matching the donations. The Steelers kicked off the 2020 Steelers Social Justice Grant program recently, and it continues today with T.J. Watt making a difference in the community
One of the most gut wrenching things we all saw during 2020 were the lines for food, people waiting in their cars, lining streets and filling parking lots, looking for help because they didn't have the means to put food on the table for their family due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For those who were already struggling, the need became even more dire. And for many who never had to turn to others for help, suddenly finding themselves out of work due to the pandemic, reaching out to others for assistance was difficult but necessary.
For those at 412 Food Rescue, what they saw in 2020 was mind boggling. Food insecurity reached new heights in the Pittsburgh region, with the numbers doubling in just the blink of an eye.
"As everyone has seen on the news, food insecurity has skyrocketed in our region," said Sara Swaney, Senior Director of Advancement for 412 Food Rescue. "What we typically saw at 412 Food Rescue was that one in eight people were experiencing food insecurity. Meaning they don't have a reliable source for a meal to provide to their family.
"What we are seeing now is one in four, so it's pretty much doubled. I think that was visible early on when we saw so many people lined up at large scale distribution events. We did that as well."
Stop for a minute and think about those numbers. One in four people in the Pittsburgh region became food insecure in 2020. It's a staggering number, one that is hard to wrap your head around. But it's real.
That is why T.J. Watt has once again stepped up to help. Through the Steelers Social Justice Grant program, a program which is led by the players in an effort to engage with various factions, including law enforcement, charitable organizations, military and more to strengthen the community at large, Watt is making a difference. He has donated $10,000 to 412 Food Rescue, with the Steelers matching the donation for a total of $20,000.
"It's hard to even hear those numbers, especially when everybody is going through such a tough time this year," said Watt of how many people are suffering from food insecurity in the region. "It was already a staggering number to begin with before 2020, and now to have the numbers doubled is pretty wild to think about. But this is an opportunity for people who have the means to step up and make an impact and that's where people like myself try to step in and understand I have a platform, the income and the ability to help out here in the Pittsburgh area, for people who can really use it. I know the money is going to help support families who need the food.
"I am just trying to do my part. I know that's not always going to be enough, but I am trying to help the community when I can."
T.J. Watt helps deliver food to local community centers as part of the 412 Food Rescue program
This isn't the first time Watt has stepped up to help 412 Food Rescue. In 2019 he got involved with the organization, going out and helping deliver food to organizations along with their volunteers. When the pandemic started, he made another donation to them to help them get through the early struggle.
"Support from our local, recognized individuals is so important, especially with someone like T.J. when he did the distribution," said Swaney. "He is so down to earth and so recognized for what he does, both for the Steelers and community. It brings attention to the work we do, and that is so important. He is so heartfelt and motivated to help the community. It's not just him donating money, he truly believes in the work he supports financially, seeing him do the distribution. We appreciate him supporting the work we are doing and the issues he is trying to address."
Watt chose to team with 412 Food Rescue, a Pittsburgh based organization that was founded as a response to the disconnect between food waste, hunger and environmental sustainability, because he knows the importance of having proper nutrition, of not having to worry about where your next meal is coming from.
"It's so humbling and so surreal to snap back into reality and say holy cow, people are so excited to receive a can of beans and just the littlest things I take for granted throughout my regular everyday life," said Watt. "I want to do more and that is the goal of mine, to do more in the community and keep bridging that gap from NFL player to an actual person. I want people to see me as an actual person, and a citizen in Pittsburgh. I am not just some guy you see on TV or on the football field. That is very important to me. It's just trying to be a good person.
"I am in a really good spot to try to affect a lot of people's lives and I am trying to do that the best that I can."
The organization works with local distributors and mom and pop stores, chain restaurants to urban farms, to provide to those who are food insecure. In the past year alone, from January-November, 412 Food Rescue has provided almost eight million pounds of food surplus, resulting in more than 6.6 million meals provided.
Normally the organization has worked only with local nonprofits, getting the food to them and they distributed it from there. In 2020 they expanded that to include a home delivery service to help elderly and at-risk residents who couldn't get out during the pandemic. They also had drive-up distribution sites, included multiple ones at Heinz Field, and launched the Community Takeout program, which assisted struggling restaurants during the pandemic while feeding those in need.
"Our biggest challenge has been making sure we can respond to the needs of the community, while keeping our volunteers safe and while keeping up for the demand for food," said Swaney. "It was an unprecedented kind of event. It's not like any other situation. People are being told to stay home, be safe, stay socially distanced.
"Because food rescue is a solitary event where you are picking up food and delivering it to a non-profit or this year a household, we were able to insure there was no or little interaction which kept it a safe process and we were able to keep up with the volunteer opportunities.
"Home delivery has always been on our radar, this process sped it up much quicker, the need to have it. The nonprofit partners we work with to distribute the food to were heavily impacted because of the pandemic. A lot of volunteers that work for agencies like food pantries, or Meals on Wheels, or the housing sites, they are typically older, maybe retirees. That is the population that was being told to stay home, be safe because they are at risk. So, the nonprofits didn't have the means to distribute the food."
Working with the agencies, 412 Food Rescue was able to identify households that needed home delivery, helping many who had no other options but home delivery.
With 2021 now here, the need is not going away. Food insecurity is still very much a real thing with the pandemic continuing and will be far beyond the end of the pandemic, something that is an emotional struggle for many.
"I think it's crazy that in the country we live in there are still people that don't have enough to feed their families," said Swaney. "We are working with food people might find wasteful, but it's perfectly good food. To be able to get in in people's hands in such an immediate manner is so moving to me. It really helps you feel good and get through some of the discouragement we face day to day hearing about increased hunger.
"It is hard to grapple with hunger in our communities, but it's warming to know so many people work together to make this happen."