Reaching Out to Feed a Friend

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A NORC employee assists a Mitzvah Food Project client with online ordering.

Every Tuesday around 11 a.m., Lisa Berkowitz’s phone rings. She reaches for her cane and makes her way to the kitchen phone with excitement. She’s been waiting for this call. At the other end is a glimpse into the lengths the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia goes to ensure every food-insecure member of our communities is nourished.

“Hi, Lisa!” says the NORC volunteer at the other end of the phone, usually a woman named Sandy. She is calling to make groceries appear in Berkowitz’s near-empty kitchen — a minor miracle enabled by a combination of old-fashioned people power, plus a brand-new technological innovation: the Mitzvah Food Project’s online ordering.

Years ago, clients of Jewish Federation’s five food pantries would show up and receive the usual pre-selected bag of food. That changed in June 2013 when, in an effort to enhance the dignity of clients, offer food choice, promote healthy eating and maximize donor dollars by reducing food waste, the program rolled out touch-screen kiosks, allowing clients to order for themselves.

Now, at two Greater Philadelphia pantries — KleinLife Center in the Northeast and the Main Line location in Bala Cynwyd — clients log into their accounts, review the food available onscreen, “buy” their own food with their virtual dollars and leave with their groceries, much like a trip to the store. It’s an empowering experience representing an advance in social services.

But even that wasn’t enough for Brian Gralnick, Jewish Federation’s director of social responsibility. “We wanted to allow even more people easy access to the food pantry,” Gralnick said. Jewish Federation worked closely with a software developer to design a web-based ordering system, and this spring rolled out the results.

Food pantry clients can now order from any online platform: computer, tablet and mobile phone. It’s so impressive that other Jewish organizations, including United Jewish Appeal and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, are looking at the model in the hopes of replicating it for themselves. “It makes us more efficient. It allows us to get twice as many people ordering at a time,” Gralnick said. Also, from a client perspective, it’s so easy: “You can place an order from your phone, home computer, from your library. If you have a home health aide, they can order for you from their own device.”

And if a homebound client doesn’t have computer access at all? That brings us back to Berkowitz.

Berkowitz, of the Far Northeast, is only 51, but has trouble leaving the house. She has mobility issues and chronic pain from back injuries and lipedema; she’s scheduled for yet another round of surgeries, which she hopes will help, but in the meantime must crawl up her own stairs. A roundtrip by bus to the food pantry, not to mention carrying her items, make the journey out of the question. She also has no computer or smartphone, and only a landline telephone.

That’s where the sheer determination of Jewish Federation volunteers comes in. The NORC already facilitates low-cost rides to synagogue for Berkowitz on Friday nights, and through conversations with her, volunteers discovered her need for food assistance. NORC staff decided to use their own computers to place her orders — hers, and anyone else who needs assistance with food ordering. So every Tuesday, a volunteer calls Berkowitz, patiently reads that day’s choices off the website, and places her order with a series of mouse-clicks.

Meanwhile, at the food pantry, a second volunteer receives the online order and packs Berkowitz’s bag with her groceries. But because she is unable to pick up her groceries, the NORC then calls a third volunteer. Because — with precisely this scenario in mind — Jewish Federation has also launched a delivery service to supplement online ordering: “This service is for people who are homebound, or lack transportation, but are able-bodied enough to cook,” Gralnick said.

One delivery volunteer is Jameil Eljed. When his phone rings, he jumps into his car and heads to KleinLife to grab an order, then drives it to someone’s doorstep. “I really enjoy it, because I see in their eyes how happy they are. When you give the food to the people who need, they say ‘God bless you.’” He also finds other ways to help. When clients allow, he will carry their bags upstairs for them and even unpack their groceries.

Once, Eljed noticed one tiny older woman was having trouble reaching the back of her freezer, and he rearranged the contents of her fridge for easier access. Yet another woman mentioned she needed a new bag for her vacuum — “she needs a Hoover bag, and oh my God, I have to get it only from Target,” he said with a laugh — and Eljed dutifully went on her errand, then replaced the bag for her. “Need is need,” he said. “If I find someone who needs something other than food, I’m going to do that, too.”

When Berkowitz opens her door for a Mitzvah Food Project delivery person, she is overjoyed. Inside those bags is such a bounty. “I get apples and sometimes they have pears, and oranges, and a huge bag of rice. Ground beef, that’s my treat for the month,” Berkowitz gushed. “And, oh, fresh carrots and sweet potatoes! It’s all so fresh and good.” She said that despite her hardships, the kindnesses she receives from the NORC and the Mitzvah Food Project make her feel lucky. “It’s a blessing, it’s an honest blessing,” she said tearfully. “I can’t say enough for how much they’ve helped me.”

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