Sue Kerr is using the power of social media and the simple donation of a tote bag to bring dignity, respect and convenience to people who use food pantries across the Pittsburgh region.
In July 2009, Kerr of the North Side was working as a social worker when she took a trip with a group of clients to the Duquesne food bank. What she witnessed that day spawned the Pittsburgh Tote Project, which now brings in tote bags for food pantry shoppers all over the city.
“I hadn’t been there in awhile so I was observing,” she said of the trip. “What struck me was how a little less than a third of the people there had arrived with suitcases on wheels, laundry tubs, back packs and all sorts of rugged hardy things to carry the food in.”
Others had nothing to carry their food home in, while they were dependent on the food bank to give them bags. Kerr was live tweeting during the trip with her clients, remarking that some of the bags there were thin, plastic donations from a local retailer.
“I saw a man come down who had 10 or 12 plastic bags and it’s uncomfortable when you have that many bags of food,” Kerr said. “The things they were giving were really bulky and his bag broke, and a head of cabbage went rolling down the sidewalk.”
The man dropped everything and went running after the cabbage. People immediately came to his aid and brought new bags and Kerr thought, that one piece of food was so important to him.
“Suddenly, I just thought of all the people with those hardcore bags and inapropriate stuff, and then I am thinking tote bags work for me,” Kerr said. “I tweeted that and little did I know, the director of social media at the Pittsburgh Foundation was monitoring my live tweets.”
He got in touch, asked Kerr for her address and sent the first tote bag donation for the Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project. While Kerr is no longer working full-time, she now pours all of her energy into the project, managing tote bag drives, setting up drop-off spots, including one at the , and gathering more than 400 of the bags in the last year and a half.
While she handles donations, all bags are sent to the Duquesne food bank. The food bank then handles all distribution of the bags, which are sent to various locations throughout the region for all people who use their services. Kerr said more than 122,000 people a month receive help from the food bank.
The Thomas Merton Center also is a partner, helping the Tote Bag Project with any financial concerns.
“It’s rewarding to me that we are able to do something that makes such a simple difference and to know that on an individual level, it could really matter for someone and allow them to get a little bit more food and not be so tired,” Kerr said. “For me, the fact that the food pantry trusted me enough and were willing to take a risk to try and do something brand new. That was good.”
A wide array of business partners, individuals and collaborators have held tote bag drives. Anyone can host a drive in their work place or organization.
“The concept of helping our neighbors who are hungry is universal and we aren’t hitting them up for a lot of cash—just tote bags,” Kerr said “I think the simplicity strikes people.”
The East End Food Co-Op started a drive in July which is now continuing. They have collected more than 250 bags so far.
Construction Junction also is a drop off center for the Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project.
Kara Holsopple, member services manager of the co-op, said the project is perfect for the organization.
“The co-op has been encouraging shoppers to bring in their own re-usable bags for years, and a few years ago, we made it official by no longer offering plastic bags at our registers,” she said. “We're so pleased to be working with the Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project to make that choice a reality for food pantry clients. Sustainability and community—it's a natural fit for us.”
Kerr said her next goal is to create a five-year plan and to get people thinking about the need on an ongoing basis.
“What we need to to do is get you thinking, 'Oh I need a tote bag,' so you grab an extra one, run to the co-op and drop it off. That is what we need to do. Some people are invested because of the hunger aspect while others are invested because of the environmental aspect.”