Abstract: Food Pantries' Responses to Need during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Innovations and Collaborations (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Food Pantries' Responses to Need during the COVID-19 Pandemic: Innovations and Collaborations

Saturday, January 14, 2023
North Mountain, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Maria V Wathen, LCSW, PhD, Assistant Professor, Loyola University, Chicago, IL
Gaby Perez Schuette, MSW, Social Worker, Loyola University, Chicago, IL
Background/Purpose: This paper examines the social innovations in service delivery and partnerships arising in food pantries in the Chicago and northern Illinois region in response to skyrocketing need during the first 18 months of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Social innovation has been described as ‘‘a novel solution to a social problem that is more effective, efficient, sustainable, or just than existing solutions and for which the value created accrues primarily to society as a whole rather than private individuals,’’ (Phills et al., 2008). Recent interest in social innovation has arisen due to changing models of government and private service provision and the need for organizations to respond to social problems faced by vulnerable and marginalized groups, (Cnaan & Vinokur-Kaplan, 2015; Jaskyte, 2012; Shier & Handy, 2020). Necessity has led to theories and practices described as coproduction (Pestoff, 2019), co-construction (Shier & Handy, 2020), or co-creation of multi-agent (Windrum et al., 2016) social innovation. The crises in multiple areas of economic and social life caused by the pandemic created exceptionally fertile soil for multi-sector innovation to flourish.

Methods: This study was undertaken in partnership with the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Northern Illinois Food Bank. Between these two food banks, there are more than 1300 partner food pantries. The data comprise 48 semi-structured interviews with food pantry directors from pantries located in four geographic region types: rural, suburban, urban high poverty, and urban low poverty. Interviews explore the adaptations and innovations that have arisen since January 2020 in how food pantry services are provided, how funding and in-kind donations are secured, how personnel and staffing has shifted, how volunteers are used/recruited/retained, and in general how services have been added, suspended, or changed. Key questions will look at how these food pantry leaders see the future – what changes do they see as helpful in a crisis but won’t keep, what innovations do they see as critical for the future, and what other ideas would they like to try moving forward? Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed verbatim, and thematically coded and analyzed using NVivo software by a team of three researchers.

Findings: Results show that co-construction of innovation occurred between food pantries, local and federal governments, other nonprofits, faith-based congregations, public health and medical institutions, and the civil society activity of volunteers. Innovation was in the area of food provision and delivery, resource procurement, recruitment of volunteers, addition of services (vaccine clinics and other medical services), and other areas of service. These innovations allowed food pantries to rapidly expand capacity and also provide new services. However, smaller volunteer-based pantries in low-income urban areas had greater barriers to innovation in food delivery than larger pantries in wealthier areas, with some variation depending on their connection to other local organizations in urban low-income areas.

Implications: For practitioners, the study illustrates the emergence of cross-sector collaboration and innovation in a crisis. For scholars, it provides evidence of how crises can accelerate cross-sector collaboration and contributes to theorizing of collaboration between actors across institutions and organizations.