Matthew Pieper and his team had to act quickly.

There were more than 3,000 people in the Greater Atlanta region that relied on Open Hand Atlanta—he serves as its executive director currently and has been with the organization for a total of 11 years—for their meals each day.

Open Hand Atlanta operates with a staff of about 130 out of an office and commercial-sized kitchen in Midtown Atlanta. Open Hand prepares, packs and delivers healthy, nutritious meals each day to households throughout the Atlanta metro for those who might otherwise go without.

“We serve adults of all ages, a large majority of our clients live 200 percent below the poverty level, and they represent the sickest of the sick and poorest of the poor,” Pieper says. “They are most often battling some serious and chronic health conditions, and most are battling multiple health conditions.”

Open Hand relies heavily on volunteers, and Pieper says that means they have on average 100 volunteers daily and thousands each year.

But things had changed. Over the past few weeks, a storm was coming his way—and when it arrived, he said there were going to be a lot of decisions that had to take place.

“Our heads are spinning with the rapid rate of change, and in such a short period of time, we’ve had to completely redesign our operations and business model on a temporary basis to weather the storm,” Pieper says.

That storm in question was the pandemic outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

About two weeks into March, major cities across the country began shutting down restaurants, bars, gyms and schools in an attempt to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. As of March 26, the infectious disease, COVID-19, which is a respiratory illness with symptoms such as cough, fever and in severe cases, difficulty breathing, has infected more than 70,000 people nationwide and killed more than 1,000.

Businesses shut down in Atlanta and its surrounding communities, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms on March 24 issued a “stay-at-home” order for the next 14 days.

Social distancing guidelines were encouraged at the federal, state and local levels.

Pieper was most worried about the clients he serves, employees at Open Hand and its volunteers. The virus could spread quickly and easily, and he had to do his best to reduce the risk of infection while “living up to [Open Hand’s] commitment to get meals to people in need.”

“That meant a lot of change and tough decisions,” Pieper says. “We are typically a 7-day a week operation, and a pride point is the amount of choice and the variety that we offer. We have been one-stop shopping for nutrition needs for a long time, but in this crisis period, we have streamlined significantly. The food will always be quality, but we have greatly reduced the choice and simplified menus, shifting to almost a completely frozen line of meals.”

Open Hand reduced operations to a 3.5-day work week with more frozen meals delivered daily and “shelf stable” meals in case Open Hand had to suspend operations because of an emergency. The use of volunteers has been greatly reduced, as well.

“We now have two production teams that don’t have interaction with each other,” Pieper says. “Volunteers now only deliver meals. This helps us reduce the exposure to COVID-19.

“But our labor costs shot up immediately.”

 

‘A LONG, FRUITFUL PARTNERSHIP’

Open Hand was able to utilize its partnership with United Way of Greater Atlanta and Community Foundation in order to help in this time of need.

On March 26, United Way and Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta announced its first round of grants allocated from its Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund. Open Hand was given $250,000 in grants to continue their operation.

The prior week, Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta and United Way of Greater Atlanta announced the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund to direct funding to nonprofit organizations and other agencies on the front lines helping our region weather this unprecedented health crisis.

Grants from the Fund focus on immediate and critical needs to support those most vulnerable.

“We’ve had a long, fruitful partnership with United Way,” Pieper says. “I admire United Way immensely and their CEO [and President] Milton [J. Little Jr.] is just such a gift to our city. I think what I admire about the United Way model is that they are so good at rallying the community and securing resources to help nonprofits.”

Pieper says Community Foundation has always been one of Open Hand’s biggest supporters as well.

“From the earliest days, Community Foundation has been there for us,” Pieper says. “They provide incredible advice and guidance and training, especially for not-for-profit leaders. I can’t even do justice to how phenomenal the team is and how much of a visionary their CEO Alicia Philipp is. She is a true saint.”

To protect clients, employees and volunteers, Pieper has veered from normal procedures, but some things will never change. Open Hand’s love for the community it serves and volunteers and employees that are the backbone of its operation will outlast this storm.

“During this crisis, we will not be personally handing the meal bags to our clients, but rather calling them upon arrival and letting them know their meals are at their front door,” he says. “We don’t want our clients or delivery volunteers to risk exposure.  We’re saddened by the necessity to do this during this pandemic as our usual face-to-face contact with our clients is a special part of our mission. It helps people for them to know they are cared for, and we help reduce social isolation, which is a big concern for people who are homebound.

“This is a sad time for us, but we want to be there for our clients. It’s what we have to do.”

To give to the Greater Atlanta COVID-19 Response and Recovery Fund and provide resources and supports for nonprofits across Greater Atlanta like Open Hand, click here.