On Monday, Philadelphia restaurants responded to Mayor Jim Kenney’s order that they restrict operations to pickup and/or delivery. While some partnered with third-party carriers or prepared to offer curbside delivery, other establishments decided to temporarily close — which creates the potential for a massive amount of food going to waste.
“Basically this is going to create a wave of excess food like we’ve never seen before,” said Evan Ehlers, founder of Sharing Excess, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit that helps connect grocery stores and restaurants with surplus food to hunger-relief organizations with storage space.
“In terms of [the food we’ve collected so far] today, it’s probably been close to about a half ton,” Ehlers said, though he didn’t have an exact figure.
But Ehlers was expecting it to be enormous. One of its usual partners — Saxbys coffee shops — was consolidating food supplies from its 12 Philadelphia cafes for Sharing Excess to pick up on Tuesday.
It’s so much food that it quickly outstripped the kitchen capacity of smaller organizations that serve the hungry, like Margaux Murphy’s Sunday Love Project, which maxed out after arranging to clean out the refrigerators of only one or two restaurants.
“I’m working with a church-kitchen situation, so I have a couple of fridges and freezers, but it’s not enough for a crazy amount of food,” Murphy said.
Sharing Excess is stepping in, using its normal network of paid drivers (primarily college students) to visit restaurants looking to donate their food. They’ll transport the food to SE’s partners, which include Philabundance, Share Food Program, Philly Food Rescue, Food Connect, and Fooding Forward. Ehlers is also seeking volunteers “that are willing to lend a hand in a safe way” to bolster its ability to retrieve donations.
In addition, Ehlers hopes to alert anyone who has been furloughed or otherwise put out of work by the coronavirus shutdown that there’s excess food available, at no cost.
“I want to put a word out there that we have food and that we are looking for ways to equitably distribute to people who need it, especially people who don’t traditionally use the services that are going to need it,” Ehlers said.
“We’re trying to make up for a lot of the community organizations that are actually closing down in the wake of all this.”
Ehlers and his partner organizations are still figuring out the logistics for distribution. “That’s sort of the tricky part about this,” Ehlers said. “We want to do this in the safest way possible, where we’re not bringing a lot of people together, where we’re not furthering the chance of the virus being spread. But at the same time we have this narrow window of time to rescue all this food before all these businesses close.”
Murphy, who had heard from The Abbaye and Love City Brewing on Monday, said she expected that more and more excess food would come rolling in over the next seven to 10 days as restaurants weigh whether it’s worth paying staff to stay open for pickup and delivery orders.
“Every day there’s going to be a need,” she said. “This is the first influx of calls to come pick stuff up, but I do think it’s going to continue, because some businesses aren’t ready to call it quits yet.”
“This is so emergent,” Murphy said. “We’re all just kind of panicked that this food is going to waste.”
Meanwhile, Philabundance has lost about 200 volunteers in recent days because of concerns over coronavirus, said Samantha Retamar, the organization’s public relations associate. But the charity is an essential organization under the city’s lockdown guidelines and is remaining open, she said.
They’re still determining what day-to-day operations look like under the lockdown, Retamar said.
“What we’re predominantly asking folks is to not bring us food donations if they can donate money,” she said. The organization has more buying power than individuals, and also doesn’t want people venturing out to the grocery store more than necessary.
Among the organization’s concerns are its senior clients, who are more vulnerable to serious cases of COVID-19 and make up 16% of Philabundance’s clients. In addition, Retamar said, many of the food pantries that Philabundance supplies are run by senior citizens, which presents more safety concerns.
Still, Retamar said: “Philabundance is open, we are trying to continue business as usual and still deliver to our agency network and those in need” as they work out what’s next.