Interview with God’s Love We Deliver CEO, Karen Pearl

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Apr 10, 2020 · 8 min read

God’s Love We Deliver is an organization on the frontline of a food crisis for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

Last week, we shared a point of view on how eating is taking on new meaning in this crisis. But the picture is incomplete if we don’t address the urgent anxieties many are experiencing in this moment. The shock to our food system has underscored inequities that have been there all along: the thousands of students who rely on public schools for basic nutrition; the added pressure on shelters and soup kitchens; the complex logistics of feeding the homebound and seriously ill.

One organization filling this gap is God’s Love We Deliver. They bring medically tailored meals to people living with life-altering illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, end stage renal disease and advanced diabetes. In short: people too sick to shop or cook for themselves.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How has this moment changed or clarified what God’s Love has set out to do?

We were born during the AIDS epidemic. We have a comprehensive, historic, and unique understanding of what it means to respond in crisis. We’re serving people’s urgent need for food and nutrition while they weather this period. Cooking and home-delivering meals to some of the most vulnerable people in New York is more important than ever. As most of our clients are elderly and all are living with underlying conditions, our home-delivered meals are critical to their health and wellbeing, and to keeping them at home and out of the hospital. What our volunteers are now seeing is how vulnerable our clients are. So many are alone, and all are sick and hungry. Our volunteers are seeing how necessary our service is, and how critical every meal and each delivery are.

Practically speaking, how have the organization’s activities changed given what’s happening?

We can’t take care of our clients if we’re not taking care of our staff and volunteers. To be able to do that, we have to be sure our staff and volunteers are also safe, and that they feel we’re protecting them. We reduced the number of volunteers per shift to the absolute minimum, ensuring fewer individuals in the building at once. All are practicing social distancing and are wearing masks. We’re screening everyone before they enter the building. And we have more sanitizer than you can imagine.

Two weeks ago, we delivered seven days’ worth of shelf-stable meals to five thousand clients — in addition to their regular meal program. We’re planning another 14-day extra delivery in the coming weeks to ensure clients always have nutritious food at home in case of any interruptions in delivery. Drivers now alert each client of their delivery with a phone call, knock on the door, and leave the meal outside in a visible spot in food-safe packaging. Our drivers and clients are still able to interact with one another, but safely, and from a distance. We’re thrilled to share that we have no interruption in meal delivery.

What has been the response?

Our clients call and email us and say things to our drivers like, Thank you…I was so scared I would go hungry…thank you for being here…my driver lifts my spirits. Those things really matter when we know that we’re sending people out in the community, they’re working their tails off.

We also get lots of wonderful comments from our volunteers, too, who say things like, Thank you for giving me some purpose during this time…just being at home is not enough for me. Especially for people who [now] have no job. There are lots of people who aren’t working, so we’ve done some nice outreach to restaurants and caterers who are referring people to us to volunteer or to work.

I have enormous gratitude for our volunteers and staff who make it happen every single day. Because we can’t get it done, or be there for our clients, without both. We’re just really grateful to people for showing up. Even though there’s lots of anxiety, they give us their best selves every day.

You mentioned earlier that GLWD was born in a crisis. What have you learned from your history that’s informed how you think about crisis now?

Crisis is a chance to reaffirm our roots — to be there for people at the hardest times in their lives. That’s always true for us. But these moments shine a spotlight on that like never before. Our clients are always vulnerable, but this is an overlay that’s unpredictable, anxiety-provoking, and frightening.

I think, when this is all over, there will be lots of lessons from this. We’ve done so much to accommodate the changing science — screening our volunteers, using masks, social distancing. We’re asking ourselves: are these things we should continue? As I look at every piece of our operation, there are lessons to be learned that will strengthen us and give us even more opportunity. I don’t want to lose track of what we’ve learned, what we could embrace in the long-run, and what we need to do better, faster, and different next time. I don’t know what the next crisis will be, but it’d be a shame to lose this month of planning and change to go back to business as usual.

As soon as businesses started to close and send their people home, we lost a thousand volunteers overnight. We rely on the 17,000 volunteers per year. New Yorkers are people of gracious hearts. We put out a call and have all these new volunteers. Our community feels smaller right now, but it’s also growing. We’re committed to ensuring that the people who count on us and support us know what’s going on, pay attention to the needs of clients, and together, do miraculous things. We’re moving ahead even though the circumstances are quite challenging. The only thing that’s better in terms of the circumstances…there’s no traffic!

I can’t believe you’re making jokes!

You have to be able to! You have to be a person. That’s the thing about coming to work right now. You remember the importance of camaraderie…it feels very different when you’re here in the middle of it, and not at home. There’s something about being a front-line worker: while it adds stress to your day, it also gets you outside yourself and remembering that you’re helping to take care of people who desperately need you right now.

If this health crisis were to become a chronic situation — even knowing that health crises of this magnitude are possible — do you envision that can change how we support each other? A different or increased responsibility or need to serve?

Great question. I want, for the moment, to put on my policy and advocate hat. This crisis has really shown how frayed the social safety net really is, even in a city that’s as progressive and rich — in every sense of the word — as New York City. It’s shown that people are more siloed than they think. And with this food crisis, even though there are providers, people don’t know where to go or who to call. It should be clear whether you go to your local food bank, call 311, call your senior center, or call God’s Love. From a policy perspective, there’s a lot to be done in terms of re-knitting the social safety net. And there’s lots of advocate and policy work to be done to better prepare for the next crisis.

Meanwhile, our numbers are increasing. We increased our client base by 10%. There are thousands more who have called asking for service. We’re sorting through that now to see who’s appropriate for God’s Love, and who we need to refer elsewhere, and how we’ll ramp up to serve even more clients. There are lessons for us in terms of what space and staffing we need. We can start by building this moment into future scenario planning. We’ve always had a business continuity plan, but no one expected the city to shut down. Now we know it’s possible.

You make an important point about the contrast between the richness of our city and the lack of social safety net. Do you think this will force a reevaluation of our values as a community?

I’d like to say yes, and I tend to be optimistic. But I’m not sure. This is not news, but the country is divided. There are forces that are sort of intractable, if I may, that are against [knitting the social safety net]. Some countries have paid people who were laid off, giving them the money for food and whatever else they need. And the fact that our country won’t do that is creating a secondary crisis of the unemployed, and people who now need food that could theoretically be going to those who can’t leave the house to get food. I’m worried about the children who haven’t had school for months and might not for the rest of the year. I’m worried about the children whose parents aren’t around, and the parents who can’t support their children.

Why are some communities so adversely affected by this virus? It’s complicated. But part of it is that some people haven’t had access to good food — healthy, nutritious food that will help them manage things like Type 2 Diabetes or obesity—or exercise to keep their bodies and lungs strong. There are just some very basic inequities. And there are people working on that. But getting rid of health disparities, financial disparates, education disparities…it’s a big lift in this country. That, from a policy perspective, has become clearer in this crisis.

God’s Love understands the power of feeling cared for. What does the food you deliver mean to your clients?

We say, Food is medicine, and Food is love. Those are two sides of the same coin. What we’re delivering to people is part of their health care plan. There’s lots of evidence that shows medically tailored meals have a positive effect on health outcomes. They lower hospitalization rates and save the health system money. They lower costs, improve outcomes, and make people happy. It’s the visit — even if brief — from the driver. It’s knowing that there’s a community around you that cares for your wellbeing, your health, how you’re doing — and wants you to do better, if that’s possible. That difference in people’s lives can’t be overstated. Our clients are isolated — whether alone or at home with kids — managing an illness…it’s a very, very stressful life.

We always say we deliver meals, dignity, respect, and love. Because that really changes a person’s day. And their life.

To learn more about the work God’s Love We Deliver does for our communities, please visit glwd.org.

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