Even under normal circumstances, the Arkansas Foodbank’s task is a logistics juggle. The organization serves 280,000 Arkansans in 33 of the state’s 75 counties, distributing pantry staples to 422 partner agencies in Central Arkansas, the Arkansas Delta and South Arkansas. Like the food banks that serve other parts of the state, the Arkansas Foodbank does its work by mobilizing a massive team of volunteers to pack up boxes for distribution to families in need — around 13,000 volunteers a year, according to Emily Gassman, communications director at the Arkansas Foodbank.
On March 20, though, the foodbank had to suspend its volunteer operations as part of statewide efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and the organization began seeking ways to fill that gap — even in the face of a swiftly escalating demand for food aid.
Enter Get Shift Done, a platform that contracts service industry workers in need of a paycheck to come in and box up food for hunger relief organizations. After its debut in North Texas, chapters sprung up in El Paso and the Washington, D.C. area. A Central Arkansas chapter was, as of April 22, the fourth hub on that list, in partnership with Arkansas Foodbank.
Like many nonprofits, the Arkansas Foodbank relies on churches and volunteer groups from corporations to staff its volunteer shifts, and much of its volunteer base is made up of retired individuals who are in a high-risk age bracket for COVID-19. When the pandemic hit, Gassman said, “We just felt it was best to suspend a lot of our volunteer activity for now, so that we didn’t have a lot of people coming in the building." On a good day, pre-pandemic, Gassman said it would be typical to have around 100 volunteers in its facility, a capacity that isn't feasible or responsible right now.
“Typically, we run volunteer shifts twice a day, five days a week.” Arkansas Foodbank's Annual Giving Director Sherri Jones, said. “And now you’ve added this extra need out in the community,” Jones said. “We needed to push out more food. So we had to try and get creative, thinking about how we could push out more food with fewer workers.”
“Arkansas already ranks second in the nation for hunger,” Gassman said, and with COVID-19-related school and business closures this spring, the Foodbank distributed a million more pounds of food in March 2020 than it did in March 2019. “So we’re really seeing an influx in people coming to our pantries, and we have a lot of first-time people who have never been to a pantry before.”
“We saw that the volunteer population for our local nonprofits were experiencing an escalating need for volunteers during this crisis,” Anurag Jain said in a March 18 press release. He’s the founder of Get Shift Done and chairman of the board at the North Texas Foodbank. “We also know there is a large number of workers in the food and beverage hospitality industry that are currently in need of work. Our goal is to help both the workers and the nonprofits facilitate delivering meals to those in need while providing wages to the affected shift workers.”
One of those affected workers is Peyton Robinson, a 24-year old Little Rock native working on a marketing degree at UA-Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock. She'd been waiting tables during the evening at the Chili's on Markham Street up until the week before spring break, when she lost her job. She saw a Facebook ad for Get Shift Done and put in an application.
"I felt like this was coming, where we'd be shut down, so I was a little nervous," Robinson said. "I had a little bit saved up, but I didn't realize that it was going to be this long. So it kind of got me into a little freakout, because rent does not stop. Bills do not stop."
Robinson started work at the Arkansas Foodbank through Get Shift Done on Friday, April 24, and had just finished her third half-day shift when she spoke to the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network on April 27. She's adding shifts at the Foodbank to her shifts at Postmates, a food delivery platform. "I started there maybe the first week in April. I signed up because I was like, 'Well, things are obviously not going back to normal just yet, and I need to make some money. Like, now.' ... And I love taking care of people, and serving people."
Hospitality workers like Robinson sign up with Get Shift Done, either as individuals or through their respective restaurants. Then, the workers download an app called Shiftsmart on their phone to clock into their shifts. They’re paid an hourly wage of $10 through Get Shift Done, while nonprofits like the Arkansas Foodbank are the recipients of that labor. In North Texas, those wages are paid through donations from a patchwork of corporations and foundations — Toyota, the Rees-Jones Foundation, the Gene and Jerry Jones Family Foundation. Here in Arkansas, Get Shift Done wages are funded by Tempus Realty Partners, a Little Rock-based investment firm, and channeled through Pure Charity, a Northwest Arkansas-based organization that partners with nonprofits to improve reach and efficacy.
Dan Andrews, managing partner at Tempus Realty, said that Tempus received word about the project from one of its investors who hails from Dallas, where Get Shift Done was launched. "He happened to know the guy who started it, and connected him with us early on, about two weeks after they started. We began some conversations, and started talking about how we wanted to roll it out here in Little Rock." Andrews declined to disclose the amount Tempus donated, but noted that since the Central Arkansas chapter launched, two other (anonymous) donors have agreed to match donations up to $50,000, "so there is a double match on any donations."
“It was a perfect fit for us,” Jones said. “The donor came on board to fund this for Central Arkansas and we started instituting it.” Jones’ role, in part, was to reach out to area restaurants, explain the program and develop a list of local employees who could benefit from the extra work. “It’s a little bit easier for us to have restaurant individuals in as employees,” Jones said, “because they’ve already had that food safety training, and they know and understand what they’re required to do when packing boxes and so forth.”
"You can work in some businesses and you do it yourself," Robinson said. "At a call center job, you're just by yourself at your phone. But you go into restaurants, and people have to get together and make it work, regardless of anything else. You just have to put your minds together." At the Foodbank, Robinson, said, "That's what we've been doing."
For the debut shift Wednesday, April 22, the Arkansas Foodbank warehouse employed five workers paid through the Get Shift Done program. By Friday, April 24, that number had gone up to 15 per shift.
“We don’t know if we’re going to bump that up yet,” Jones said on Friday. “The thing we have to watch is that we’re able to keep everyone at a safe distance, and making sure we’re keeping everyone healthy.” Each employee’s temperature is taken before they can enter the warehouse, and workers are required to don masks and gloves while packing boxes and to maintain social distancing practices within the facility. “To visualize,” Gassman said, the warehouse looks “kinda like a Sam's Club. It’s got racking from floor to ceiling, where we’ve got pallets stowed, and we have about 13 rows of that. Then we have a refrigerator and a freezer section. A lot of people don’t realize that we give out fresh produce, and dairy products, and meats, things like that. … Right now, as you can imagine, it’s pretty busy.”
The food packed up this week went out to partner school districts, pantries and mobile food distribution centers, “where people literally drive up, we pop it in their trunk and they’re on their way,” Gassman said. “In a normal time,” some of the Arkansas Foodbank’s 422 statewide partner pantries use a client choice method of distribution, meaning recipients choose their own items, rather than leaving with a pre-packed box of food. Now, the Foodbank distributes only pre-packed “emergency boxes.”
"Tomorrow, we're giving out 840 boxes that we did today," Robinson said on April 27. "All in six hours, might I add," she said, with an audible wink. "I love working there. All of us, we're really down to work. The managers don't have to tell us much. Just point us in the right direction and we'll get it done."
As long as the pandemic impacts both service industry workers’ paychecks and food banks’ volunteer forces, Jones said, the Arkansas Foodbank hopes to extend the Get Shift Done program. Even when restaurants eventually begin to open their doors again, she said, returning employees might only work a fraction of their former hours, and the Shiftsmart app is flexible enough to act as a side source of income for those newly re-employed workers. “We all know that it may take a little bit of time for [restaurant employees] to get back up to where they were before COVID-19 hit,” Jones said. "We feel like this could last for multiple months, to be able to help these individuals, just to get Central Arkansas back on track.”
Once the initial funding runs out, Gassman said, the Arkansas Foodbank will rely on other donations to keep the program running as long as there's a need for it.
“Some businesses might not open back up,” Gassman said. “People are going to continue to be out of work, and still need to pay bills. We’re prepared to feel an increase in the demand for food for many, many months to come.”
Meanwhile, the Arkansas Foodbank has added a Saturday shift to its schedule of operations, Jones said, to pack emergency food boxes. “We’ve never pushed out this much food. We’ve handled a lot of disaster relief over the course of the years that we’ve been in business, but nothing at the capacity of this pandemic.”
This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.