The COVID-19 pandemic has caused serious challenges for pet owners across the country. To address the need for free and easily accessible dog and cat food in their community, Columbus Humane bolstered their existing pet food distribution efforts, in part through a partnership with the ASPCA, and is now able to help 100 times more families than before.
We spoke with Jessica Nelson, Director of Operations for Columbus Humane, to learn how they achieved such success.
ASPCApro: Did you have a pet food distribution program before the COVID-19 pandemic? If so, how has the pandemic altered your operation?
Nelson: Our prior food distribution programming was very small and more reactionary than proactive. If someone reached out to us for help, we would do what we could to get them supplies, but we weren’t promoting the program or working to grow this area of our work. Our partnership with the ASPCA and our food distribution programming has grown this area of our work in an incredible way. Now, the biggest change in our operation is volume. We went from helping approximately 5 families a month through food distribution to helping over 500. Our families average 3.2 animals per household, so we have impacted roughly 1,888 animals in our community. We know that this estimate is likely low given that our initial information gathering had multiple choice answers for the number of pets of a given species, topping out at four.
ASPCApro: What does the process look like to the client?
Nelson: Clients can sign up for food on our website. There is an option for delivery or for pick-up at our shelter. There are no income or other qualifiers for the food. We ask for information about the number and species of pets, their spay/neuter status, and whether or not they would like access to more resources once we bring back more of our programming. No one is turned away, but this information may be helpful if we have additional services to offer in the future such as low-cost spay/neuter.
If the client choses the delivery option, we contact them once they submit a request form to schedule our drop. The drop is contactless, either on their driveway or near their door. It does take a week or more for us to get food delivered.
If the client choses pick-up, they can schedule their time through our online schedule. When they arrive at the shelter, we have signage instructing drivers to pull around to our entrance, and we come out to check them in and load their trunk or drop on the curb for them to load.
“During this time of uncertainty, we want to make sure that our community doesn’t have to decide between feeding their pet or themselves... We haven’t seen any surrenders due to an inability to afford basic care for their pet since this all began.”
ASPCApro: What does the process look like for your organization on the backend?
Nelson: We have four pick-up days a week. On those days, we have a team lead print off totals for the day first thing in the morning so we can pull all of the needed food and get it to where our pick-ups will happen. We then have volunteers greet clients and run food from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.. At the end of each day, we total up the number of no-shows and pick-ups to keep a running tally for reporting purposes.
Deliveries happen one to two days a week and are much more involved in the backend. We have a team member who sorts and contacts clients to let them know when their delivery date will be. We also create a route for deliveries using the software used in our Cruelty Investigations Department. We then load one of our transits with all needed supplies (plus a little extra, just in case) the day prior, and two team members deliver together—one driving and the other dropping supplies.
We use Acuity scheduling through our website for pick-up scheduling and information gathering. We have a Squarespace form to gather information for our deliveries, and our team communicates across days and locations using the Microsoft Teams app. You can use whatever platforms work for your agency.
Our team also attaches notes of encouragement to each order that goes out to brighten the day for our clients hopefully.
ASPCApro: What words of advice do you have for other shelters considering creating a pet food distribution program?
Nelson: Put in the work to set up the infrastructure before you go live. It is hard to have food and hold on to it for a few days before you start handing it out, but it is better to take a little extra time to set up a smooth process and make sure everyone knows what they are doing before you invite the public in.
Also, note that you are very likely to have an initial influx of help needed at the beginning, so be ready for an initial wave and set your limits ahead of time. How many pick-ups can you accommodate in a day? What about in an hour?