Food-focused nonprofits aim to feed the need - SHIM

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Food-focused nonprofits aim to feed the need

Packaging stuffing

Darryl Coaston, lead chef trainer at Community Kitchen Pittsburgh in Hazelwood, packages stuffing for distribution to other organizations. He works with participants in Community Kitchen’s transitional jobs program.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – Thursday is the final date for filing charitable contributions on your 2020 tax return, and several local food-focused nonprofits could use the help. Hunger has nearly doubled in the region this year, according to 412 Food Rescue CEO Leah Lizarondo.

Leaders of local food-focused nonprofits found themselves inventing new programs on the fly. Jen Flanagan, Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s executive director, said “‘pivoting’ is the word of the hour.”

Community Kitchen Pittsburgh ( runs a culinary training program for people with barriers to employment, such as those who have recently left prison. The program was closed from March to June, per Gov. Tom Wolf’s orders. So its instructors started making 1,000 meals a day for homeless shelters and schoolchildren near the Hazelwood kitchen. The organization then hired 17 people to help make and pack the meals, creating a new transitional jobs program. The meals ended up not only feeding those in need but also providing jobs.

“We wanted to keep the meals close to mission,” Ms. Flanagan said.

Volunteers are still needed to help package meals. Since the summer, the culinary training program has reopened on a hybrid model.

A few local food businesses have also started using the kitchen with trainees working as co-packers.

Looking ahead to 2021, Ms. Flanagan said fluidity will still be the name of the game because federal Coronavirus Aid, Rescue and Economic Security funding will run out for many programs.

“We’ll throw a lot of stuff up and see what sticks” in 2021, Ms. Flanagan said.

At 412 Food Rescue (, restaurants prepared food and 412 Food Rescue distributed it through its new Community Takeout program. Seven of the eight restaurants that prepared food ended up making it through the spring shutdown without having to close for good, Ms. Lizarondo said.

The organization has resurrected Community Takeout during new restrictions, this time working with 16 restaurants for six months.

412 Food Rescue also distributed food at bus stops, participated in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farmers to Families program by holding pop-up distributions of fresh produce, and started a new Home Delivery program in which volunteers take food to the homes of people in need.

Ms. Lizarondo urges Pittsburghers to download 412 Food Rescue’s app and make deliveries — a safe, social-distanced means of volunteering during the pandemic.

Growing food

Grow Pittsburgh’s urban gardens kept operating, with masked volunteers growing and harvesting food that often supplies food pantries. But Grow Pittsburgh’s school garden programs didn’t have any students on site. They were all doing online learning.

Executive director Jake Seltman said staffers kept the school gardens running and donated the produce to food pantries. They offered online lessons for students and sent out 3,000 “grab-and-grow” kits so students could grow plants at home.

Mr. Seltman said Grow Pittsburgh ( anticipates that more people are going to want to start gardens and is gearing up to meet the demand. In 2021, the organization will take over Garden Greens, a former nursery and urban farm in Wilkinsburg, to grow seedlings and for educational and gathering space.

Distributing food

Food pantries are on the receiving end of produce and other food donations. Scattered all over the city and run by various nonprofits, they have struggled in 2020 to find ways to continue distributing food without spreading the coronavirus.

North Hills Community Outreach ( runs food pantries in Avalon, Millvale and McCandless. Clients could no longer pick out their own food, donations had to be prepackaged and in the summer and fall, people had to pick up food outdoors. Now that it’s cold, clients are picking up boxes at the door.

Spokesman Jeff Geissler said the pantries used to feed 400-500 families per month, but since the pandemic hit in the spring, they’re serving about 320 extra families.

The three locations are accepting donations of nonperishables on site from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, and Mr. Geissler said there’s a particular need for cereal, juice, meal-style soups, canned pasta and canned vegetables.

South Hills Interfaith Movement ( runs pantries in Bethel Park, Whitehall and Baldwin Borough. executive director Jim Guffey said not being able to let clients into the food pantries meant losing “the dignity and respect of being able to make their own decisions.” SHIM had no choice but to move to a prepackaged format. The nonprofit also began offering home delivery to people vulnerable to the virus.

Volunteer opportunities have shrunk because of social-distancing concerns, but Mr. Guffey encourages people to hold food drives in their neighborhoods and bring the food to the pantries.

“This is a good way to make sure kids understand giving back if you’re blessed, and you can do it safely, masked and social-distanced,” he said.

At Rainbow Kitchen ( in Homestead, executive director Donna Little said a staff of six is now doing all the work. They’ve turned away volunteers out of concern for those they serve who are elderly or have health problems, she said.

At their food pantries, they used to serve 400 households a month. Now it’s 700. They also serve a daily meal on weekdays for about 80 people. It used to be a sit-down meal in the dining room; now it’s grab-and-go style at the door.

Engaging government

Even though it never handles a piece of actual food, Just Harvest also found itself shifting gears this year.

Executive director Ken Regal said the group was “part of a national effort that appears to have won” when Congress passed the latest COVID relief bill on Dec. 21. The bill increases food stamp benefits by 15%, he said.

Just Harvest ( also spent the year working with families that receive food stamps to make up for lost school meals. Interagency red tape blocked some families from receiving their benefits, so Just Harvest tried to help.

Just Harvest typically helps 1,200-1,400 families apply for food stamps each year. This year, Just Harvest served about twice as many families.

The organization also worked with farmers markets to provide the electronics systems needed to process food stamps.

Financial future

Mr. Regal said his organization is “still cautious about what the future holds because the economic consequences of the pandemic may persist for a while.” In situations like this, he said, low-income people are the last to recover.

However, he echoed a sentiment that all the nonprofit leaders expressed: “Philanthropic and individual donors have been extremely generous.”

“The South Hills is very caring, as is Greater Pittsburgh,” SHIM’s Mr. Guffey said. “A lot of donors have stepped forward with financial gifts.”

He noted that unrestricted gifts can go wherever money is needed most.

At Rainbow Kitchen, Ms. Little said local foundations and corporations have stepped up to fill some funding gaps. She also said Listak Gulf Service in Munhall donated a portion of proceeds from May gas sales to Rainbow Kitchen. Owner John Listak called her to discuss the fundraiser on the same day in April when news outlets were reporting that the price of oil had plummeted. She said his donation was particularly touching because she knew he was taking a hit, too.

These nonprofits are not out of the woods yet. Many are wondering how they will meet all their clients’ needs in 2021, particularly if fundraisers and outreach programs are canceled again. Each of the organizations mentioned has a button on its website to accept individual donations. Yet there’s still a sense of optimism.

“In general, I’ve been really impressed with how many different partners have come together to address the needs,” Community Kitchen Pittsburgh’s Ms. Flanagan said. “If we can put food on people’s tables, they can use their resources for other things.”

Food events

Breakfast with Santa Thank You Event: Santa was sad to miss out on breakfast with local children, so he’s planning to come out for a post-Christmas breakfast. Tickets include breakfast, a stocking and a visit with Santa. 9 a.m.-noon Jan. 9-10 at Hard Rock Café, Station Square (

Learn to Make Real Italian Prosciutto: This is a three-session class with one meeting each in January, March and November. All three sessions are required. The first session is from noon to 3 p.m. Jan. 23 at the American Italian Club in Aliquippa. Cost is $100, or $150 for two people who share one ham. The class fills quickly, so register soon by requesting an enrollment form at

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