The Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) Squirrel Hill Food Pantry plans to reopen for in-person, in-store pick-up during the first week of August, another sign that life is returning to normal as most COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in Allegheny County.
Volunteers poured back into the Hazelwood Avenue food pantry for “open houses” in mid-July and the facility is expected to be back in full operation before the summer is over, according to JFCS CEO Jordan Golin.
“It does seem like it’s safe to begin moving forward with this model,” Golin told the Chronicle. “But I think we’ve all learned through the pandemic to be flexible — that’s unfortunately going to be a part of life on planet Earth as the pandemic plays itself out.”
And JFCS clients are relying on their plasticity, he said, because “COVID-19 has been a very challenging time for everyone, but especially for people in our community who are struggling financially.”
Director Matthew Bolton doesn’t hide his pride in the fact that the JFCS pantry was one of the few in southwestern Pennsylvania to remain open five days a week during the pandemic.
“We never had to close,” Bolton said.
Even so, of course, the pandemic challenged the organization.
During COVID-19, the food pantry’s approximately 60-to-70 area volunteers largely kept out of the building; accordingly, JFCS estimates, it lost about 350 volunteer hours a month over the course of the past year.
That left a core staff of three or four people with the Herculean task of lifting, sorting and bringing out for parking lot pick-up about 15,000-to-20,000 pounds of food a month, Bolton said.
He also stressed that “life cycle events do not stop because there’s a worldwide pandemic.” Neither do holidays. In 2020 and 2021, the JFCS food pantry served the needy during Passover, delivering more than 10,000 pounds of food during two-week spans. It also was involved in helping launch kosher food pick-ups made available through Yeshiva Schools.
“With this pandemic, it’s just been one thing after another,” Bolton said. “We’ve tried as best we can to adapt to the needs of the community. I’m proud we’ve stepped up and gone above and beyond.”
The pantry took some additional measures as well. During Passover — when some Jews leave on ovens overnight so they can cook on the holiday — the pantry distributed literature on fire and electrical safety, and issued more than 400 surge protectors and smoke alarms, Bolton said.
Other social services continued as well, despite the COVID-19 obstacles.
Thanks to the United Way, the pantry distributed micro-grants up to $700 each to families in financial need, said Claire Burbea, JFCS clinical needs coordinator.
Golin, the JFCS CEO, said he’s excited people can resume shopping for their own food in the pantry “grocery store style.” He believes there’s a certain dignity in that.
He also stressed that the perception that people in the Jewish community don’t need support or food supplements — in Pittsburgh or elsewhere — is rooted in stereotypes about Jews and money.
“The more we investigate, the more we find a need,” Golin said. “Poverty is not a situation you can avoid due to your religion or your membership in our tribe … we in the Jewish community are not immune to it.”
For more information about the food pantry, call 412-421-2708. PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.