Emergency Food Boxes for Public Housing Authority Seniors

“When this crisis first began, it was immediately clear that our residents would need food and emergency supplies. Our seniors and disabled high-rise residents became our first priority as we knew that the best way to keep them safe was to help them to shelter in place.” ~ Melissa Sanzaro, Executive Director Providence Housing Authority

The Providence Housing Authority (PHA) provides a robust resident service program to its residents but that model was flipped on its head when COVID-19 hit. Usually reliant on face-to-face interactions and events to identify those who needed help, and to connect tenants to resources, the organization faced an immediate dilemma with the pandemic. How would they continue to reach their vulnerable residents when door knocking and in-person interactions had become a life-threatening activity?

It was a daunting prospect but one the PHA did not shy away from – the agency immediately reorganized and activated staff members across departments to conduct tenant outreach by phone. While a team of dedicated staff called and reached almost 90% of its 2,600 households for wellness checks in those first weeks, another group – the Food Task Force – began organizing boxes of shelf-stable food and supplies for those in need using the USDA’s Senior Box program as its model. The goal was for the box to meet the majority of a single-household tenant’s nutritional needs for a month – and for PHA to come back each month with another box for those who need it. The Authority’s warehouse was largely cleared out to re-purpose the space for a new food boxing operation which will continue for the coming months. Every box is dated and a heart sticker is placed on the box.

Lead Resident Services Coordinator, Barolla Ovalles, ready to deliver emergency food boxes at Parenti Villa, one of the seven elderly only and elderly-disabled buildings with more than 1,100 units total owned by the Providence Housing Authority.

At first, the PHA used its own operating funds to purchase from local stores but supplies were limited and the costs quickly added up. So did delivery challenges, as social distancing and mask wearing practices were continually updated. With support from the Rhode Island Foundation and United Way RI, the PHA secured a $75,000 grant to provide an estimated 1,900 boxes over the coming months. As of the end of April, more than 900 boxes had been delivered to every one of the PHA’s seven elderly and disabled buildings, as well as to some elderly households in its family developments.

PHA also delivers another 150 boxes each month as part of the existing Senior Box food program provided by the RI Community Food Bank, and has developed several other partnerships with city, state and nonprofit agencies to get donated food to public housing residents during this crisis, including distribution of 7,000 military ready-to-eat meals and 300 frozen meals for seniors so far.

Residents at Hartford Park Tower line up outside the building to pick up their provisions from the PHA.

“It is important for us to keep our residents safe, so we’ve had to try different tactics and methods of distribution as the situation evolved,” notes Bartola Ovalles, Lead Resident Service Coordinator and leader of the Food Task Force. “We’ve got it down to a science now, where we call residents several days ahead of delivery and then on the day of, we call them to come for pick up in small groups. Residents are reminded they must wear a mask when picking up their box for everyone’s safety. Staff also maintain spacing as we position ourselves so that one person can unload the boxes off the truck, another can note the resident and unit, and another is there for crowd control.”

Tenants who are unable to come down from their apartment due to a disability have a neighbor or proxy bring their box up – the entire process is done without PHA staff entering the high rise and to maintain social distance between residents as they pick up their provisions. The cross-departmental task force – with staff involved from the Resident Services, Facilities Management and Property Management departments- has even been able to adjust operations to factor inclement weather into the delivery and staging of the process so they can continue services without disruption, even in the rain.

Residents at Codding Court wait under a tented staging area for their monthly food box, a model that allows the PHA to provide food boxes even in the rain.

In addition to its work ensuring seniors and disabled residents have access to food and necessary supplies during the Crisis, the PHA also began hosting a youth meal site at its Hartford Park family development. Partners at Sodexo provide children under 18 with multiple days’ worth of breakfasts and lunches in each box, which are offered twice per week on Tuesdays and Fridays.  “This is a unique partnership we were able to offer the community thanks to the help of our Resident Advisory Board member and Commissioner, Vivian Medina, who championed the need to assist our other most vulnerable population – children living in public housing.” says Julie Piccolo, Director of Resident Services for the Housing Authority. Within two days, the PHA staff had called over 500 residents with children in the area to let them know about the resource and the site continues to serve over 400 children and their families each week.

“I applaud the extra effort that PHA staff has made to provide the tenants with a wellness care food box, wellness calls, and support,” said Maria Mendez, a Resident Advisory Board member and tenant of 13 years. “The tenants have complimented the PHA’s hard work in caring for us in these uncertain times.”

Families pull up to the meal site and a box containing several days’ worth of food for each child in the household are placed in their truck for contactless delivery.

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