School of Health Sciences

OU Health Sciences professor helps transform local emergency food system to reduce potential COVID-19 transmission

icon of a calendarApril 22, 2020

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OU Health Sciences professor helps transform local emergency food system to reduce potential COVID-19 transmission
OU Health Sciences professor helps transform local emergency food system to reduce potential COVID-19 transmission
Oakland University Health Sciences Professor Jennifer Lucarelli with Dustin McClellan, founder and CEO of the Pontiac Community Foundation.

Oakland University School of Health Sciences Professor Jennifer Lucarelli has spearheaded efforts to create a collaborative emergency food system in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s really been amazing to watch the team gather from so many organizations, under Jennifer’s direction, and pull together this food distribution effort at the Oakland Center so quickly and efficiently,” said Kevin Corcoran, Oakland University’s chief community engagement officer and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “The effort is already paying big dividends to the residents of Pontiac and beyond who need our help during this unprecedented time.”

Pontiac Community Foundation Founder and CEO Dustin McClellan explains, “Most folks already have little to no financial margin, no access to transportation. Pontiac is considered a food desert.”

Local food systems worked tirelessly to ramp up their services in response to the increased need for food as the community experienced job losses and ran out of food options. Families were often making multiple trips to get food from various sources, many of which have restrictions based on age, the amount of food provided, or how often one could visit. This took a significant amount of time and effort planning, as well as reliable transportation, but it also worked in opposition of the government’s orders to “Stay Home, Stay Safe” to prevent transmission of coronavirus. 

The My COVID-19 Response Team put their heads together to create a new system, one that delivers a full week’s worth of food directly to your door, eliminating the need to leave your home. This system serves households with limited financial resources, but also those without transportation or at high risk of serious health consequences, including seniors, immunocompromised, or those with asthma.

The Pontiac Community Foundation brought together local organizations using the My COVID Response Team to gather additional resources and reach out to those in need. Lighthouse, Oakland County’s largest food bank, quickly stepped up to provide bulk food to launch the system. Oakland University opened the doors of the Oakland Center to provide space to store bulk food deliveries and for volunteers to safely package food boxes utilizing appropriate public health protocols.

Lighthouse CEO Ryan Hertz shared his appreciation for OU’s support on this project.

“Pooling our resources in one central location gives our volunteers more room to work at a safe distance from one another during this frightening pandemic,” Hertz said. “The extra space will also allow Lighthouse volunteers to assemble larger food boxes so families can stay in their homes longer, helping reduce the risk of exposure to the virus for longer periods of time.”

Lucarelli, who has chaired the Healthy Pontiac, We Can! Coalition for nearly 10 years, highlighted the power of more than 40 local organizations collaborating. For example:

• Disaster Relief At Work (DRAW) was one of the first organizations to donate 200 food boxes

• Gardner White Furniture uses their trucks to transport large food orders

• Micah 6 Community is providing fresh produce for those receiving food deliveries

• The Sheriff PAL Program staff has volunteered to help manage the database and match families with volunteers

• The Baldwin Center sent over extra formula to help feed hungry infants

• Many organizations have worked to sign their stakeholders up for the services they need.

“This is the spirit of Pontiac, neighbors helping neighbors,” Lucarelli said.

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