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Lisa Scales ’78: Battling Food Insecurity During a Pandemic

People waited in their cars in a mile- long line outside Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank in Duquesne in March 2020. The photo of the traffic jam went viral as a symbol of food insecurity during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lisa Scales ’78, president and CEO of the food bank, gave interviews to Anderson Cooper on CNN and other national networks about a clientele that had exploded overnight. People called and showed up at the warehouse, many of whom never imagined that they would be desperate for their next meal.

We got hundreds of phone calls,” she said. “They were recently unemployed, and they were quite frightened. They needed food and they were not sure what the future held.” She has seen a lot of workers in the hospitality and retail industries who lost their jobs due to restaurants closing and small shops shuttering.

Working 16-hour days, seven days a week, Scales and her staff distributed 25 million pounds of food from March 16 to September 31, 2020 – a 30 percent increase over the previous year.

To adjust to a new contact-free world, food bank staff packed emergency food boxes for drive-up distribution. They also sent boxes to 500 affiliated food pantries throughout 11 southwestern Pennsylvania counties, most staffed by volunteers who are seniors who kept working despite the risks of getting sick. The food bank also started a concierge line to direct people to the right resources for food and other essential services and home delivery for those who couldn’t get out.

Scales also tries to reduce the stigma of food insecurity. “It’s not something they did to themselves. They are not alone. It’s okay to ask for help. Everyone deserves to eat every day.”

“What’s inspired me has been the community support, corporate support, individual support, the number of people making meals, chefs making sure kids are fed,” she said. “It’s been heartwarming to see everyone rally.”

People lining up for food has only accentuated a problem that has always been here but was invisible to most people.

“One in nine of our neighbors had been struggling with hunger,” Scales said. “Because of COVID, one in seven people are now food insecure.”

Scales Named Pittsburgher of the Year

For her outstanding leadership of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank during the COVID-19 pandemic, and her ingenuity in feeding people under the most stressful

of conditions, Lisa Scales ’78 was recently named Pittsburgh Magazine’s Pittsburgher of the Year. Scales graces the cover of the magazine’s January/February 2021 issue, and the magazine story spotlights not only her tireless work at the food bank but also her lifelong journey of helping others.

“Lisa represents the best of our region,” said Pittsburgh Magazine Publisher Betsy Benson. “She is humble, hard-working and has an unrivaled empathy for people who are struggling. Lisa was the hands-down choice for Pittsburgher of the Year.”

Pittsburgh Magazine has honored a Pittsburgher or Pittsburghers of the Year every year since 1986. Read the article online at year-lisa-scales/.

Congratulations, Lisa!