Food Bank 1

Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma staff unloads a delivery truck Wednesday, April 8. The food bank is currently providing around 750,000 meals a week to people in need.

It has been just over a month since Tulsa's first confirmed COVID-19 case. 

Since that time, grocery store shelves have been wiped out and restocked only to be wiped out again, but that doesn't mean everyone has food in their kitchens.

Thousands of area workers have been furloughed as businesses have been forced to close. According to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission, more than 200,000 of the state's citizens have filed for unemployment, many in the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma's service area.

During a typical week the food bank, based in Tulsa, provides over 460,000 meals across 24 counties. In recent weeks, those numbers are climbing toward 750,000 and growing.

The food bank relies on local corporate partners for food drives and donations. Neither of those are occurring at this time.

Community Food Bank CEO Lori Long is 10 days into the job. She joined the food bank after serving 12 years as the executive director for the Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges.

She inherited a massive non-profit food operation that is trying to adapt and help more people as the inventory dwindles. It is a growing concern as unemployment numbers rise during this unprecedented crisis.

Long discussed by phone Thursday, April 9, taking on the CEO role in the midst of a pandemic, how the food bank has been impacted by the pandemic and how people can help. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. The full conversation will be featured on the April 15 Tulsa Talks podcast. 

What has it been like taking on the CEO role of the food bank in the middle of a pandemic?

It's been interesting to say the least. There's been all sorts of analogies used and I think two of my favorites right now that I'm sharing are, it's kind of like tip taking a sip of water from a from a firehose. You want to just get a taste of it and you get a gusher. But, you know, another one is that it's really just it's kind of organized chaos at this point to be honest with you.

I have the personality style and the learning style that I learn best by doing, and I have to admit that the situation that we find ourselves in right now actually works very well for my style. I'm able to jump right in, just get to get to do things, get to ask questions... I think one of the biggest lessons that I've learned so far is that you can still do that very effectively if you are open to those opportunities.

I think a lot about the approach and the positivity needed going into a situation like this. My approach, my thought process has everything to do with the success and the outcomes that we're going to see if I went into this feeling negative down, "Oh, this can't be done," our results would probably be that way.

I choose to go into this wide eyed, honest and open, but positive and saying "We will overcome this." That's the Tulsa mentality anyway. We will overcome, and we will be stronger on the other side. That is the way I've chose to approach my first days here and so far, I think it's going very, very well.

Good. So how are the spirits at the food banks? I'm sure right now it's a hectic, crazy, wild time for everybody there.

It is. It's very hectic. It's very different from business model to delivery, etc. We are working right now with kind of a split personnel approach. We certainly have individuals here on site at the food bank that are those frontline workers, our warehouse workers, our delivery drivers, our volunteer center workers, that their role is critical to being here at the food bank.

Then we have other employees who was still very critical and and you know, that's one of the things that we've kind of struggled with as either calling it an essential position or a critical position.

In a nonprofit every position is critical and mission centric. So what we've tried to do is define what those job tasks are that can be done from home, and who's cannot. So for those that are able to work remotely and still be productive and contribute to the support of our mission, they are working remote.

Then those individuals, like the warehouse workers and the drivers, those are here on site while still being very mindful of best practices and the CDC guidelines with regards to social distancing, preventative measures, things of that nature.

I think overall, no matter if it's people that are still here on site, or those working remotely, one of the things I have learned very quickly about this team that I so appreciate and admire is they really have a can do attitude. It is coming across so clearly. They are absolutely committed to the mission of the food bank and know that now more than ever, we we are so needed in our community. And so their their attitude of a can do let's do this is shining through, and it's very impressive.

How many people do you have working right now?

I think we're hovering right around 75 to 78, and the majority of them are working. Some are on site. Some are working remotely, but they are continuing to fulfill the mission. And again, I think that's wonderful. People are getting very creative in how they can continue to do that no matter their circumstances.

How is your inventory? Going into this you had some sort of idea maybe or the organization knew something was happening or occurring. You obviously always have an inventory, but how has it handled going through this process so far? Have you been able to maintain it? Are their struggles there?

We were very well positioned going into this situation. Our inventory has been very, very good up until about the point we are right now... We are just now starting to see concerns regarding inventory.

There have been a lot of calls and conversations about supply chain, which not having a food bank background the terminology I'm learning very, very quickly. Supply chain is how we receive our inventory in, and we receive inventory in a lot of ways.

We have donated goods that come from individuals donating product. It could be companies doing a food drive or it could be retail donations. Then there are purchased programs. So we have a lot of methods of incoming inventory.

We have definitely seen a decline in the first few of those that I've mentioned no surprise with individuals, corporate and retail donations coming in. That forces us to really look at the purchased market. The hardest thing is everybody's at that point right now.

All of the food banks across the country are having to purchase, so what we're starting to see is quite a bit of a backlog.

As we are placing orders right now the normal turnaround time is usually less than a week from the time you place an order to the time your inventory can arrive. Now most products see a two to three week backlog.

We just heard [Wednesday] on some of our most needed products that we're looking at a six to eight week backlog and product inventory. That's a that's a major concern. We're just really trying to do the best that we can utilizing as many vendors as we can to be able to get what we need to fulfill our orders and what our pantries need as well.

What's the demand been like? Was it like you guys anticipated or is it been way more drastic? I saw just this morning that the unemployment numbers are now over 16 million nationwide. You're feeling that locally?

We absolutely are. So we are just now and I'll be honest with you, the food bank has handled and been involved in a number of disasters over the years. Again, you can probably imagine from the floods last year, two tornadoes, two federal shutdowns and teacher walkout, etc., but we've never quite experienced a disaster like we are in right now.

I don't know that we knew exactly what to expect or what those numbers would look like, and quite honestly, we're just starting to get reports from our partner agencies sharing what we're seeing and what are those numbers looking like right now.

As of [Wednesday] our agencies are reporting about a 30% increase in the numbers they're serving. And that's on average, some of our larger partner agencies that are a little bit more well known are seeing higher increases upwards of even 50 to 60%, again, probably because they're a little bit more well known. Those are the organizations that people go to quite frequently, and they know of them.

Some of your smaller organizations, especially in our rural communities, even though the need is high they're not seeing quite as much at this point. We're going to have better numbers, I think, even going through April, but that's what we're seeing right now.

We do anticipate, obviously, with unemployment rates going up, increased furloughs, the the feel of not having those paychecks. We know that's going to continue to climb.

If someone is needing food, what is the process for them to reach out if it's an individual who needs food to eat?

Typically in the past, people don't individually directly come to the food bank for assistance. We would traditionally refer them to one of our partner agencies. If you were to go to our website at Okfoodbank.org, there is a button up at the top or a link at the top of get help. You can go there and based on your zip code your community, you can find the list of our our partner organizations.

That being said, we know that some of our partner organizations are having to change their operations. Some, especially again in our rural communities are completely closed down. They are ran by volunteers. Sometimes those are older volunteers who are in these vulnerable groups, so they're closed right now.

Food bank 2

A Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma worker on Wednesday, April 8, 2020. The nonprofit organization is looking at new ways to provide food to Oklahomans during the pandemic.

Others are all terrain, their operation hours, while others are expanding hours, but changing their delivery methods. Rather than a walk in pantry, they're loading the groceries in the car, things of that nature to limit the contact. So it's kind of across the board.

So like I said, traditionally, we would refer them to one of our partner agencies. Now, if someone does present to the food bank directly, they walk here they take the bus, they show up at our front door. We do have limited supplies of emergency boxes, and we would certainly not want to turn them away.

If for some reason we get to the point where we don't have an emergency For them immediately, we will find out from them their closest pantry that is available to them and make sure they're able to be served.

On the flip side, how can people help you guys because it's a weird time with everyone stocking up on food themselves. They're not supposed to leave the house and you have to follow the rules with social distancing, so volunteers can't rush in to help like they would in a tornado, or a flood.

The challenges that we're facing right now is just this. It's a change in business model. That's everything from food coming in, to sorting it, packing it, delivering it. Everything has changed so drastically.

I think the biggest way that people can help right now is if they are able to spare for food drives or for food donation. Even if they're at the market and they say, "Hey, all of a sudden pasta and pasta sauce is plentiful on the shelf," grab an extra one, if they're able and willing to do that.

Our biggest needs are pasta and pasta sauce. Obviously canned goods, especially canned proteins, and boxed meals. So if there's an extra two or three items that they can find each time they go to the market and they're able to collect that build it up and get it here to the food bank. That is incredibly appreciated.

Fund drives as well. Those dollars. That's always very, very important. I will tell you that just in this first four to six weeks that we've been responding at this point, we have already seen our budget being impacted by about half a million dollars.

Again, a lot because we're having to buy food, right? So every little bit helps and we know people are so so strapped right now we know that. Even if that is a $10 to $15 contribution, and if they are able to do more know that they are helping their neighbors in need.

One of the other key pieces of information that we have found very interesting from our partner agencies right now, of those that have that increased amount of people that are coming for assistance 60 to 70% are brand new to the feeding assistance services. They've never had to seek out assistance like this before.

I think we're going to see those numbers continue to climb.

So you know, I think at this point, we don't know if in terms of those new people is that going to be our neighbors and the people we go to church and we worship with and it could be our our former colleagues or current colleagues, we just don't know at this point. So knowing that any little bit that somebody can contribute, we'll help and benefit this response.

If people do collect some food items, do they need to bring it out directly to the food bank?

They can bring it right to us. We are monitoring everyone who comes into the food bank. Typically our doors are open and people can walk right into our offices. We are keeping things locked and our receptionist is available to buzz people in.

Even if that's a matter of buzzing and talking through the intercom to our receptionist, they leave the food items, we will come out and collect it to limit the the contact there.

Update: The food bank has cages set up on the agency dock from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily to receive food donations. More info can be found here.

Do you have a ballpark idea of about how many people are getting assistance right now?

You know, we really don't. I can tell you that on an on an average week, prior to the disaster response, we provide about 463,000 meals. Typically we count by meals rather than people. So on an average week, 463,000 meals, that's through all of our partner organizations, as well as some of the direct programs that we run here at the food bank. There's no doubt that is increasing. We don't have numbers to that exactly yet. But again, from our partner partner organizations, we're seeing an average of about a 30% increase, if that gives you any indication.

So you're closing in on a million a week. That's incredible.

I know. It's it's really mind boggling when you think about it. Now do keep in mind we cover a 24-county service area in eastern Oklahoma. So we're not just talking Tulsa Metro region, even though that's where our headquarters is located. That is throughout our entire 24-county area.

You've mentioned the rural communities where there are pantries shutting down. Are you starting to see that ripple effect across counties? How is it going in the rural areas?

I think we're just starting to see that. I think early on we were we were seeing it in the Tulsa Metro and obviously kind of our suburb areas quicker. I think we're starting to see that in the rural communities now. We are having to have some conversations about if we can and how we will create some more rural distribution routes.

So typically, what we do right now, is we have some drop off points where we meet our partner agencies and they can pick up their orders from us. Rather than that model, we will have to look at OK we take a truckload of food and those from those rural communities instead of going to the pantries as they would come right to our distribution site.

It's very different. Again, we were having to look at different models of how we deliver and how we distribute. And this is very different for us. We're also having to keep in mind those CDC guidelines, how do we distribute but keep people safe at the same time. That safety of not only our staff and volunteers who might be distributing, but those that are accepting the assistance as well, and making sure we have adequate gloves and masks and sanitizer, and everything else, all those things that everybody's struggling with, we have to make sure we have that at the same time.

I know we've talked a lot about kind of doom and gloom type news here. But is there anything that's positive that's come out of this or anything happy that you can share that you've seen in your first couple weeks there?

There's actually two success stories that I'd like to talk about.

The first one is a really creative partnership between Hunger Free Oklahoma, us the food bank and Tulsa Public Schools.

So you might be familiar with the fact that Tulsa Public Schools has already some existing sites where students can come and pick up what's called a grab and go meal. So students show up and they they have a meal that they can get and take with them, but those meals are specifically for the children. So Hunger Free and our staff here at the food bank came together, and they created a partnership called Tulsa Kitchens Unite. This is such an amazing concept.

So what they've done is they've pulled so far six local kitchens, and we're looking to grow that. That can be restaurants or catering companies or food trucks that have had to close down their existing operations or limit their existing operations, but keep their workers working. So the kitchens and the food trucks etc, are preparing meals. We are taking those meals to the food sites, and it's for the parents to get a meal and take meals home for their families.

We have five distribution sites through Tulsa Public Schools. We just actually started the program [Wednesday], and we are anticipating offering this three times a week, and it will be thousands of meals provided through this effort. That will continue to grow as we get more kitchens and sites for distribution. So right now we have proposed this as a 12-week partnership, and we we anticipate that growing each week. So I think that's a huge success story.

I think it's very creative about how we can engage our local business and restaurant community to keep their workers working during this time, and we're all still meeting that fundamental goal of feeding people.

How the food bank has been involved in that partnership is our our own culinary chef, Jeff Marlow, has created all of the recipes and the meal plans, and then we are doing all of the food ordering and then coordinating the food distribution. Hunger Free Oklahoma has coordinated all of the kitchens and the restaurants and making sure their staffing is adequate to meet the needs that are out there. So it's a really awesome partnership. We're really, really excited about it.

Most of the efforts through the schools, of course, right now are on feeding the children, which is absolutely important, but we can't forget that those adults need help as well. And so these are pre-packaged, ready to just warm up meals, and they get them for their family. So it's a wonderful, wonderful opportunity.

The second success story that I want to share with you is actually happening [Friday]. Again, we do not typically do a lot of food distribution right here on site at the food bank, but we know that the need is still great out there.

We are hosting a drive thru distribution. It's a very targeted distribution. And what we did is again, looking at those displaced workers from both the restaurant industry as well as some entertainment industries, like the Drillers, the BOK Center and things like that, as well as some other churches and other partner agencies who serve individuals that are vulnerable and at risk, like Life Senior Services, Tulsa Cares, those types of organizations where either they have compromised immune systems or other health conditions that make it a challenge, and quite honestly dangerous for them to go out and try to get groceries on their own.

So the drive thru distribution will be here at the food bank, and it'll be a no contact distribution. So they will drive up and they will simply roll down their window, tell us how many individuals are in their family, and depending on how many people are in their family, we will load an appropriate number of boxes into their trunk or their backseat, and they will be on their way. So it is no contact. They don't have to get out of their car, and we're able to load right in. And they will get enough meals to serve their family for a three to four day timeframe. And that does include shelf stable options as well as fresh produce.

I just think those are two really great examples of, again, kind of going back to that, you know, how, how are the spirits here with the food bank, it's that can do attitude. It's thinking outside the box, thinking creative about how "yeah, it's out of our business model, but how can we serve during this time?" And we're learning from it. We're not saying that this drive thru distribution is probably going to work perfectly, but it's saying "OK, let's be open to the idea." We will reconvene afterwards and talk about what went right. And what can be improved so that if and when we offer this opportunity again, we can make it better.

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