Adapting to a Virtual World

Originally posted in Harvest 2022

Volunteering at a distribution center. Organizing a food drive. Attending nutrition education classes. These beloved programs at Gleaners all had the potential to be crushed under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our way of life shifted from in-person to remote, from community gatherings to faces on a screen. Though Gleaners’ mission never wavered, we needed to meet the need on the frontlines while also adapting to a new virtual landscape.

On a hot and humid summer day, a white van with a “U.S. Army Veteran” bumper sticker pulls up to one of Gleaners’ mobile food distributions. Inside was Debra, hoping to provide healthier food options for her two young grandchildren at home.

“Produce and fresh fruit cost a small fortune at the grocery store, so it’s cheaper to eat bad. But here, we don’t have to worry about it because we have help from Gleaners,” Debra said with a smile, as she reached into her purse and took out her wallet. “I have a Gleaners card, and I keep it in a place of honor right behind my driver’s license.”

The card provides client insight within Link2Feed, a secure database launched in 2015 by Gleaners and Forgotten Harvest. Guests like Debra, who are comfortable signing up with a Link2Feed account, can voluntarily share insights about themselves, such as dietary preferences, household size, location, expenses, and any barriers to food access. Every time a guest visits a pantry site, their card is scanned, allowing Gleaners and our partners to better serve clients like Debra and understand the unique challenges they may face.

This knowledge became crucial in the height of the pandemic, when our neighbors were worried about their ability to put food on the table. Alongside our many agencies and partners, Gleaners implemented community mobile pantry sites in neighborhoods that were facing the greatest need. Link2Feed data helped to inform these decisions by providing information about capacity and trends in the service area, including visits at nearby partner locations. For example, Link2Feed data identified many people who were traveling long distances to receive food services. This prompted Gleaners to work with its partners to stand up community mobiles around those zip codes.

However, information alone isn’t enough to stand up a program; people power is needed to adopt
new technology. Though many in-person volunteer shifts were canceled for more than a year, Gleaners found an avenue to engage volunteers virtually through Link2Feed. A 120-member strong virtual volunteer corps helped power the Link2Feed program, improving outcomes for everyone we serve.

“Our virtual volunteers are making a huge difference in the lives of our hungry neighbors, and they can do so remotely,” said Cristina Herrero, Service Insights Specialist at Gleaners. “Their work with Link2Feed helps us identify patterns. It shows us the people we’re serving but also who we might be missing.”

Gleaners has always been dedicated to serving anyone who approaches us in need—but we are also determined to find underserved populations. Underscoring the respect and integrity we have toward learning about our guests’ unique experiences and needs, Link2Feed equips Gleaners with new data and insights to continue to lay the groundwork for a more food-secure community.

While client feedback revealed a high demand for fresh foods like milk, eggs, fruits, and vegetables, a well-balanced meal also requires nonperishable food staples such as rice, beans, and pasta. Traditionally, these items would often come from physical food drives—but that came to a halt when the pandemic made it unsafe to accept individual food donations from the public.

“People were eager to help their neighbors, and we’re grateful they wanted to give back through Gleaners,” said Phil Garofalo, Director of Marketing & Communications at Gleaners. “Our challenge was figuring out how to provide our donors with the same level of engagement as the physical food drives that were near and dear to their hearts.”

With usual food drive partners isolated due to lockdowns and closings, it was incumbent upon Gleaners to meet community members where they were: at home. In a few short months, Gleaners launched a new Virtual Food Drive (VFD) platform on its website as a digital alternative to the traditional food drive.

This innovative new tool gave users the experience of browsing colorful images of food items and adding them to a shopping cart. It was familiar enough to be easy to use, while also showing users the vast array of foods Gleaners could source, such as chicken, rice, peanut butter, mixed vegetables, and fresh fruit. Each listing allowed users to compare retail prices to Gleaners’ discounted prices. Whereas a can of chili beans would cost $1.79 at the grocery store, a donation through Gleaners’ VFD platform could purchase that same item for just $0.52.

Gleaners leveraged one of its organizational strengths through VFDs—purchasing power—to fill the gap left behind by traditional food drives. But even beyond that, the platform positioned our donors at the center, allowing them to get creative with personalization or form teams for friendly competition. From virtual 10Ks to lemonade stands to corporate giving initiatives, the VFDs are versatile for various group sizes and efforts. With this level of scalability, Gleaners can incorporate a constant stream of community feedback into the system, providing a bright and innovative future for the VFD platform.

Gleaners is known for its ability to efficiently source and distribute food, but the work doesn’t stop there. Ensuring guests know how to incorporate the food they receive into well-balanced meals is equally important. For more than a decade, Gleaners’ nutrition education team has taught hands-on cooking classes for children, adults, and seniors looking to make easy and healthy recipes on a budget. How could Gleaners continue these efforts when a pandemic prevented people from gathering?

“The entire staff was highly motivated to continue programming in whatever new format it was,” said Jake Williams, Nutrition Education Manager at Gleaners. “There was a lot of thoughtful process put into place by all the staff to make sure we were really meeting the needs of the community.”

Gleaners quickly pivoted to a virtual cooking class model, accounting for the unique needs of each age group. Before each class, staff members delivered ingredients and booklets to senior centers, schools, and other central meeting points. Hosting classes through Zoom allowed for bigger class sizes, which led to increased engagement and interaction among participants. The team also incorporated cooking lessons on Facebook Live and TikTok.

For seniors who struggled with computers, staff would personally call and walk them through the curricula over the phone. This past year, nearly 750 people across Southeast Michigan graduated from the nutrition education program, earning lifelong skills for cooking, budgeting, and health. “The information was very helpful because I am diabetic and I need ways to improve my eating habits, and I want to learn different healthy recipes,” said one participant. “Seeing how recipes can be flexible gives me confidence to try new techniques,” said another.

The future is never set in stone. While nutrition education classes are among Gleaners’ oldest programs, the team successfully reimagined its programming to adapt to a modern era. Through determination and a high standard of excellence, Gleaners remained a pillar of support for so many in our community, while simultaneously growing and improving to best meet the needs of our hungry neighbors.