We've all struggled, to one degree or another, to stay productive during the coronavirus pandemic. For example, when I drove away from GAF Headquarters in mid-March, I expected to work from home for, at most, a few weeks. As those weeks stretched into months, my co-workers and I have used digital tools to stay connected and productive.
But a tool that works for a writer or an engineer doesn't work for everybody. You can't run a free farmers market over Zoom, or distribute fresh produce to families in need via Skype. Yet that's the challenge our friends at the Interfaith Food Pantry of Morris County (IFP) struggled with throughout the early months of 2020.
IFP is the largest provider of supplemental and emergency food in Morris County, primarily serving low-income working families and senior citizens living on fixed incomes. For three years, the Pantry has held a free farmers market at their two Morris County locations. This year, as the coronavirus pandemic put more than 1 million New Jersey residents out of work, requests for assistance from IFP have increased by 300%. That means demand for IFP services skyrocketed just as the pandemic shut down their traditional distribution facilities, and forced the temporary closure of their Free Farmer's Market.
I say temporarily, because at the same time IFP was trying to solve their distribution crisis, folks at GAF — aware of the state's food scarcity problem — were also searching for ways to support our communities in their time of need. The GAF commitment to helping neighbors in need is embodied by the company's Community Matters program, and it's through Community Matters that GAF first connected with IFP.
"We're most impactful when we do relevant things in unexpected ways, and show up to help in unexpected places," said Jeff Terry, VP of corporate social responsibility for GAF, describing the role GAF can play in the community. "We're not a food company, but we saw an opportunity to use the assets at our disposal to respond to this community need."
Representatives for IFP and GAF got together for a brainstorming session, and the pieces came together like a jigsaw puzzle. Each organization seemed to have an answer to the other one's needs.
I imagine the conversation went something like this:
IFP: "We need a space to safely distribute produce to families in need."
GAF: "We'd love to put our empty parking lot to good use. Have you thought about a drive-through?"
IFP: "We need volunteers."
GAF: "Our employees are craving a chance to help. And our tagline is, literally, 'We protect what matters most.'"
IFP: "We've never done an outdoor farmer's market like this before…"
To which GAF responded, "Neither have we. But no worries. We're putting one of our best people on it."
And so they did. GAF Community Engagement Manager Arlene Marks took the reins and, with input from GAF Facilities and Hawk Logistics, architected a first-of-its-kind drive-through Free Farmer's Market. The Market opened on June 12 for registered IFP clients, and proved an immediate success, serving around 500 households while maintaining good COVID practices including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, and social distancing.
"The IFP Free Farmer's Market has given us a chance to open our hands to the community and use our creativity and business experience to offer solutions that help our neighbors in concrete ways," said Arlene. "It's rare for a company to lean in and own a project like this. But GAF was proud to partner with IFP to plan the logistics, organize the volunteers, and facilitate the operation."
The IFP Free Farmer's Market at GAF has been open every two weeks, throughout the summer and fall, rain or shine.
In recognition of our role in jointly serving the Morris County community, IFP has graciously presented GAF with its Golden Apple Award.
A Volunteer's POV
I volunteered for the second Market, on June 23, and the experience has drawn me back again and again. (In fact, my bride joined me on a recent visit and can't wait to go back as soon as there's an opening.)
The volunteer day began between 8 and 8:30. When I arrived at Parsippany HQ, the first thing I noticed was four pairs of red GAF tents, in two parallel rows, dominating the main GAF lot.
Arlene gathered all the volunteers at the dot of 8:30 to explain the set-up and our roles in making it all work.
Each pair of tents was a loading station, she told us, ready to handle two vehicles at once. Tables at each station would be piled high with a range of fresh, delicious produce, all pre-sorted and bagged, by us, for the clients. As a client pulled up in their car, their trunk or rear doors open, "runners" would place a specified number of items in the car and then a "traffic warden" would flag the driver on to the next station.
(We discovered that loading a car at all four stations could be done in about two minutes. Try doing THAT at your local grocery.)
In addition to the food crews, an army of traffic volunteers would station themselves throughout the lanes of One Campus Drive, helping make sure every guest found their way safely in and out of the market.
Did I mention it was rain or shine?
Even during the volunteer meeting, I couldn't help but notice the seamless integration of the IFP and GAF teams. It was only our second event together, yet the crew — decked out in matching Community Matters GAF volunteer Ts — was already running like a well-oiled machine. Clearly, Arlene and her team had thought through virtually every detail. From the spacing of the distribution tents, to the traffic flow, to the precise number of plums per car, nothing had been left for guesswork.
Throughout all of it, the gracious management and staff of IFP were everywhere, making sure their clients were checked in, providing bilingual greetings to help everyone feel welcome and informed, and even running water to the countless volunteers spread out across the huge campus. The warmth and welcome they offered the GAF team was only rivaled by their obvious love and concern for their clients.
That love was returned tenfold by the hundreds of drivers whose smiling eyes shone above the edges of their COVID masks.
The answer to "What matters most?" is different for everyone. But on Free Farmer's Market day, I'd be willing to bet that what matters most to everyone is the joy on the face of a mom, dad, senior, or caregiver, rolling home with fresh, nutritious fruits and vegetables for their families.
"This is just one example of the partnership we have with IFP," Arlene told me. "Now the question is, how to continue this momentum through the winter? How do we help IFP serve their clients in the future?"
And to that, my question will be, "Will you be looking for volunteers?"
To donate or volunteer to support IFP's mission to fight hunger across Morris County, visit www.mcifp.org. And to learn more about GAF's commitment to local communities across the country, visit our Community page.