Partner Profile: Operation Food Search

The numbers related to COVID-19 in North St. Louis County tell a bleak story. The community has been hit hard by the pandemic, with some of the highest reports of cases and deaths in the St. Louis metro.


But the number 260,000 is different. It stands out as a remarkable achievement for Operation Food Search: It’s the number of meals the nonprofit delivered within the Normandy school district footprint between the start of the pandemic and May 1.


Of course, delivering those hundreds of thousands of meals is only part of the picture—the food also has to be sourced, ordered, and purchased on the front end and then packed and distributed to families after delivery. It’s a complex effort that normally requires weeks or months of planning. With COVID-19, Operation Food Search had just a few days to get started given the scope and impact of the pandemic.


Fortunately, Operation Food Search is a partner of the Community Impact Network, which convenes a variety of partners in order to help organize and facilitate the delivery of resources and services for people living in the Normandy Schools Collaborative footprint. The Network formed and funded an emergency relief task force which included Operation Food Search, the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, Affinia Healthcare, Beyond Housing, United 4 Children, the Society of St. Vincent DePaul, and the Normandy Schools Collaborative.  Partners like Operation Food Search received grant funding from the Network for immediate needs within the community—grants which allowed the partners to collectively address issues including food insecurity, rent and utility assistance, COVID-19 testing, and more.


Initial estimates were that 700 or 750 families would probably need assistance with food, said Brian Wieher, the director of child and family nutrition at Operation Food Search. “We didn’t think about job loss immediately,” Wieher recalls, looking back at the early days of the emergency response. “None of us knew what was coming.”


Now it’s clear that thousands of families in the Normandy schools footprint were impacted by the economic effects of closing St. Louis City and County except for essential services and workers. Through the Network’s emergency response, Operation Food Search delivered 90,150 meals in April. On top of that, it also provided 92,000 meals through the St. Louis County Library’s drive-thru pickup events—the same amount of meals the county libraries gave out over the entire summer in 2019.


In addition, the backpack food program that supplies Normandy students with groceries over the weekend kept operating as well, with different distribution models designed to meet the most recent health guidance. Ramping up for all of this “was really, really crazy,” Wieher said. “I worked 14 days straight trying to figure it out.”


Not only was Operation Food Search pivoting from its usual role as a food rescue organization to keep food from being wasted, it was also entering uncharted territory of coordinating more directly with the distribution teams, including another partner in the Network’s emergency response, Beyond Housing. Wieher and his team immediately started sourcing and purchasing well-rounded meals that didn’t require refrigeration. Then they helped brainstorm innovative distribution—including the drive-thru pickup sites that have suddenly become the norm—to minimize the number of hands touching the products.


“The Community Impact Network really stepped up right away,” Wieher said. “They saw what was going to happen and were able to fill the need.” Quick work was essential in getting the orders placed ahead of the surge in demand, and Wieher credited his colleagues at the Community Impact Network with pushing forward despite the short timeframe.


In Wieher’s view, the fact that Operation Food Search’s personnel had already been in contact with the staff at the Community Impact Network and other partners through the coalitions was key. “All of us already knew each other in some aspect,” he said. “We were able to have very frank conversations.”


Jaison K.D. McCall, the Community Impact Network’s managing director, agrees that having trusting relationship already in place allowed the emergency effort to hit the ground running. “It’s pretty easy to put trust in an organization you’ve already had success with,” he said. “If we had not launched our four Coalitions—around early childhood development, youth development, basic needs, and economic readiness—I don’t think everyone would be as accustomed to working together.”


McCall appreciates the many ways Wieher and all the other individuals have contributed to the emergency response. “It takes a lot of effort,” he explained. “They have to do their regular jobs and now this on top of it.” For example, a suggestion from Wieher led to National Guard troops helping haul pallets and direct traffic at food distribution events.


In a normal year, Operation Food Search would be placing orders this month to meet the needs of students who are at home for the summer along with all of its other food rescue efforts, including supplying around 200 food pantries. But 2020 is anything but normal, and all of the Community Impact Network’s emergency response partners are determined to keep pace with the local needs.


For Operation Food Search, that means its usual food rescue work will continue to take a back seat to addressing food insecurity. “We’ll keep doing what we’re doing,” Wieher said. “This volume is going to keep up for some time.”


To organize and facilitate delivery of resources and services during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Community Impact Network formed and funded an emergency relief task force comprised of a variety of its partners including Operation Food Search, the St. Louis Area Diaper Bank, Affinia Healthcare, Beyond Housing, United 4 Children, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, and the Normandy Schools Collaborative. The partner organizations received grant funding for immediate needs within the Normandy Schools Collaborative footprint in North St. Louis County—grants which allowed the partners to collectively address issues including food insecurity, rent and utility assistance, COVID-19 testing, and more.


In addition, the Network continues to convene its four Coalitions—5byAge5, Back2Basics, Youth1st, and WOW—and to offer behind-the-scenes support to the many ongoing initiatives offered by the 85 organizations with which it has membership agreements. Through fostering authentic, trusting relationships, the Community Impact Network aims to create an environment where nonprofit social service sector providers can experience and demonstrate improved success.