Step Up to the Plate, a massive, collaborative effort to provide food and aid to Philadelphians experiencing hunger and homelessness during the pandemic, concluded 20 months of service at the end of December after distributing 878,165 meals.
Run by Broad Street Ministry, Prevention Point Philadelphia, SEAMAAC, and the City of Philadelphia, with the help of dozens of partners, Step Up to the Plate brought together a team of caterers and restaurants, nonprofits serving vulnerable populations, and funders for the initiative, which was spread across three temporary food service sites.
The initiative was supposed to last only two months beginning in April 2020, during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
Instead, Step Up to the Plate barreled forward for around 600 days — 10 times longer than planned — a surprise even for its organizers.
“We thought two months would certainly take care of it,” said Mike Dahl, founder of Step Up to the Plate and former executive director of Broad Street Ministry. He’s now CEO of Stamos Capital, an investment advisory firm.
“And then we just kept extending it, month after month. None of us could have predicted how long this pandemic would go on.”
Step Up to the Plate was fueled by about $6 million, the vast majority from philanthropy organizations and individuals, Dahl said. The city also contributed.
In all, more than 30 funders — including the Haas Family Foundation, singer Jon Bon Jovi’s JBJ Soul Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation — contributed.
At the same time, more than four dozen partners were involved, among them Tiffany’s Bakery, Dietz & Watson, the Joy of Socks, and Pat’s Steaks.
“For me, the great aspect of this was that it was the best cross-sector collaboration I’ve ever seen,” Dahl said. “You had the city working with nonprofits, philanthropies, restaurants, caterers — all of them taking care of neighbors in the most vulnerable situations.
“Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged all of us to build a ‘beloved community.’ When I think of all the organizations and individuals who came together, I have to believe that Philadelphia is well on its way to achieving his dream. It was such a rare and wonderful thing to watch.”
Liz Hersh, director of the city’s Office of Homeless Services, concurred. “It was brilliant, timely, and it worked,” she said. “As we reflect back on the havoc COVID has wreaked on our society and community, we should also hold on to the extraordinary efforts like this that have kept people alive and gotten us through.”
Throughout Step Up to the Plate’s run, its meal sites were at Broad Street Ministry in Center City, which helps Philadelphians who are homeless with food and social services; Prevention Point Philadelphia in Kensington, a nonprofit public health and social services organization that works to reduce the harm associated with drug use; and SEAMAAC’s location at the Francis Scott Key Elementary School in South Philadelphia. SEAMAAC is the Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Associations Coalition, a nonprofit that supports and serves immigrants and refugees.
Laure Biron, executive director of Broad Street Ministry, said her group kicked off Step Up to the Plate in the spring of 2020 by installing 16 hand-washing stations around the city, as per guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The idea of working outside the ministry on South Broad Street has continued, she said, with a hygiene truck that rolls through the city now, handing out supplies of toothbrushes, deodorants, period products, and more.
Ultimately, she said, Step Up to the Plate was a “shining example of public and private partnerships.”
Beyond food, the initiative offered services and distributed numerous items of need to a population of Philadelphians suffering from both housing and food insecurity, she said.
Step Up to the Plate administered 6,492 COVID tests and injected people with 1,201 shots of COVID-19 vaccines. It also registered 304 people for unemployment benefits, distributed 10,308 pieces of clothing, and 3,000 doses of Narcan (for the emergency treatment of opioid overdose), not to mention 700 toys last Christmas.
Another benefit was that employees of restaurants and catering companies were given the opportunity to work during the pandemic, organizers noted.
Although the initiative lasted so much longer than anyone had anticipated, economics dictated that it had to end.
“All of this was expensive, and finding the financial support to continue was getting difficult,” said Jose Benitez, executive director of Prevention Point Philadelphia.
As Dahl put it, “We ran out of philanthropy and the city extended things as long as it could. We wanted to make it through the end of 2021, and I give the city tremendous credit for pushing this out as far as we could.”
Proud of what was accomplished with an effort that overachieved, Dahl added, “It just drives home what a wonderful, compassionate spirit we have in Philadelphia.”