From Pallets to Food Boxes

Since Mercy Works began teaching technical skills like computer coding and robotics to teens in 1998, “food distribution” typically meant handing out snacks. But when COVID-19 closed schools, the Syracuse agency quickly pivoted to provide meals to thousands of children.

“There was a need and we jumped,” said Mark Haywood, former Mercy Works project leader and director of outreach and missions at Abundant Life Christian Center.

Within days of the shutdown, the Syracuse City School District was distributing bagged breakfasts and lunches. But with many people abruptly out of work, officials worried that kids would go hungry on weekends. Could Mercy Works provide groceries for families to take home on Fridays? And could the agency’s Clarence Jordan Vision Center on the Southside serve as the packaging and distribution site?

By then the reality of the virus was sinking in. People scrambled to rearrange their lives to meet stay-at-home orders. Stores ran short of supplies.

“There’s no chicken. There’s no bread. There’s no eggs,” Haywood said. “It’s not just that people were short of money. If they could get to the store, there wasn’t food.”

School district officials, hoping the crisis would be short, asked Mercy Works to donate food for 5,000 families for the two weeks beginning March 27 and April 3. With no supply chain or food distribution experience, Haywood and his colleagues took on the challenge.

The first week, Mercy Works spent $55,000 for 48 pallets of groceries to make 20- to 30-pound boxes. “We wanted it to be as healthy and fresh as possible,” Haywood said.

City schools couldn’t accommodate the huge food deliveries. After striking out a few times, an Oncenter staffer connected them with a property manager who donated an 80,000-square-foot warehouse on Thompson Road for the project.

Haywood worked the phones, looking for food. Syracuse Banana, stuck with thousands of dollars of produce when restaurants closed, donated everything in its warehouse. Donations from two families and Abundant Life covered expenses for the first two weeks, but it wasn’t enough to sustain the effort for the length of the crisis.

COVID-19 Community Fund support covered the cost of seven additional weeks of food. In those nine weeks, Mercy Works distributed 32,000 boxes across 30 sites.

Boxes typically contained at least 5 pounds of fruit, two loaves of bread, 2 pounds of pasta and at least a jar of spaghetti sauce. “It was what we could get at the best price and we thought kids would eat,” Haywood said.

Mercy Works staff, volunteers and community partners were happy to help. “This is our neighborhood,” Haywood said. “How could we not?”