Taking over the top post at Westchester’s largest food bank at the height of a global pandemic is no easy feat. Anti-hunger executive Karen Erren, who replaced former CEO Leslie Gordon in July, gives us the low-down on how Feeding Westchester is fulfilling its mission during these turbulent times.
Please give us an idea of your background and career highlights.
I’m originally from Arkansas. I have worked in food banking for more than 15 years, coming to Feeding Westchester from Florida, where I was executive director of the Palm Beach County Food Bank. I think that my history as a nonprofit leader, coupled with on-the-ground food bank leadership during COVID-19, led to this wonderful opportunity as president and CEO of Feeding Westchester.
The pandemic disrupted operations at food pantries and soup kitchens nationwide. How were Feeding Westchester’s partners and programs impacted, and how is the network doing now?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have experienced disruptions in the food supply, variables in volunteers and partners, and changes to our distribution models, among other challenges. We had some partners who had to temporarily suspend services, but we also had partners who were already serving the community add food distribution to their work. Feeding Westchester increased and broadened its direct services and partnered with more than 40 programs throughout the county, to ensure food distribution for those who need it most.
How has the public responded to the need, and what trends are you seeing in terms of monetary donations?
Feeding Westchester is distributing more food than ever before. Pre-COVID-19, many people were unaware the extent to which there are hungry people in Westchester County, a community that certainly also has great wealth. Now, during this time of record unemployment, many individuals, companies, foundations, and others have continued or come to the table to help us address hunger relief, and we are grateful — more than twice as many people need help than pre-COVID. Our partners and programs have doubled the number of individuals they serve, to more than 300,000 each month. Community support is more critical now than ever.
“Feeding Westchester increased and broadened its direct services and partnered with more than 40 new programs throughout the county, to ensure food distribution for those who need it most.”
—Karen Erren, CEO, Feeding Westchester
How stable has your volunteer base been during the pandemic?
We had to suspend our normal group volunteer activities during COVID, which was very challenging. Annually, we have more than 11,000 volunteers contribute more than 43,000 hours to packing and distributing food — the equivalent of more than 20 full-time employees. We were so grateful to have had the National Guard with us for close to five months. They were a huge help. We have slowly begun bringing back small volunteer groups. I add a special shout-out to a few amazing and committed volunteers who literally served as ad-hoc employees and worked every day, nonstop, prior to and throughout the pandemic.
How have the mandated social-distancing protocols and other restrictions and requirements impacted the organization’s distribution strategies?
We adjusted distribution models to accommodate additional COVID-specific health and safety protocols. For example, our distributions are either drive-through or walk-through; our volunteers and partners wear masks and gloves; and we ensure
social-distancing protocols through placement of traffic cones, signage, et cetera.
What has emerged as the most difficult part of your job during the pandemic?
The most challenging part is the continuation of such significantly increased need. Back in March, we expected [the coronavirus outbreak] to last eight to 12 weeks. When I think about the seniors, children, and hardworking families to whom we are providing food — and the intense challenges they continue to face many months later — we want to do as much as possible to help.
Are you planning any initiatives in the foreseeable future that you’d like to mention?
One of the components of our work that I am most proud of is our focus on nutritious food. Even throughout this pandemic, nearly half the food we distribute is fresh fruits and vegetables. Much of the produce we distribute is grown right here in New York State, which, of course, also helps our farmers.
What are some key ways in which non-food-industry businesses, and people in general, can help Feeding Westchester fulfill its mission?
Certainly, the greatest opportunity to help us provide food to the community is through a financial gift. The community’s generous support allows Feeding Westchester the ability to be agile, to adjust to continued changing circumstances.