Give a shift: Program links food workers with nonprofits

A program that started in north Texas to connect laid-off or furloughed restaurant and hospitality workers with paid shifts at nonprofits feeding the hungry has come to Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley.

“Get Shift Done” is the name of the effort, conceived by Dallas entrepreneurs and community leaders Patrick Brandt and Anurag Jain. Brandt is president of Shiftsmart, a marketplace platform that connects part-time workers with open shifts, and which is now being used to match out-of-work food industry workers to nonprofits finding themselves without volunteers since the COVID-19 crisis began.

The first shifts in the RGV under the initiative started Monday. Participating nonprofits include Amigos del Valle, Brownsville Wellness Coalition, Good Neighbor Settlement House, Ozanam Center, Salvation Army of McAllen and the United Way of Southern Cameron County, which led the creation of Get Shift Done for the Rio Grande Valley.

Jain is managing partner with Dallas-based venture capital firm Perot Jain, an investor in Shiftsmart and chairman of the board of directors of the North Texas Food Bank, which helped Get Shift Done get on the ground. Communities Foundation of Texas also played a key role, establishing a relief fund to raise money to pay workers under the program, which is now in central Arkansas and Washington D.C. in addition to Texas. Jain said that when the pandemic hit, the demand for assistance through the food bank began rising sharply.

“Last week we gave out twice the amount of food we normally do at this time, and I don’t think we satisfied the community,” he said. “And then of course we have the situation with the volunteers. Last year we used 37,000 volunteers, who are simply not showing up because of COVID.”

Brandt said they witnessed “an incredible drop-off in workers, and this was pre-shelter-in-place, pre-lockdown. In particular, the hospitality industry was being hurt pretty badly.”

On a Saturday the two discussed solutions and by the following Thursday workers were on their first shifts under Get Shift Done.

“We’re coming up on two months and we’re in nine cities and 50 locations,” Brandt said. “It all happened very fast.”

He said the program may offer a glimpse of how nonprofits operate in the future, noting that Get Shift Done workers make for a very efficient and productive workforce.

“One thing that opened my eyes a lot was how much of hunger relief in this country is delivered through volunteer network and/or school systems,” Brandt said. “One in six (people) are food insecure and we’re only as strong as the weakest link in the supply chain. It’s great that volunteers are willing to do it, but pretty scary that that important, basic need is met with such fragility.”

Get Shift Done isn’t designed as a top-down initiative, but rather as an opportunity for communities to “really own it,” he said.

“In some places it’s an incredible scale,” Brandt said. “Some places we’re not touching quite as many people as we’d like. … It’s all about how the community takes it and runs with it.”

Jain said that in March they thought of the initiative as a relief effort that would last no more than a few months, though that view has shifted. Now it seems likely the program will be needed much longer, assuming the economy rebounds only in fits and starts and ups and downs as opposed to a clean “v-shaped recovery,” he said.

Jain said he thinks reopening the economy is the right thing to do, “but how smoothly will it go is yet to be seen.”

“Of course, we’re still hoping that if we put the country back to work, this is a temporarily solution and goes away,” he said. “I want it to go away. I want people to have long-term jobs and for our volunteers to come back.”

Jain said Get Shift Done is only possible through private donations, noting that the money is well spent since the idea that people don’t want to get back to work is flat wrong.

“I’ve met a bunch of workers that have come back,” he said. “They are super excited to come back and get a wage, even if it’s a little bit hard or it’s out of their way to drive. … They’re excited to do good as well. It really, really brings out the best in people. I’ve seen the best in people as they come to work.”

Traci Wickett, United Way of Southern Cameron County president and CEO, said Get Shift Done planted the seed for a similar initiative UWSCC launched as “United Against Hunger” in early April at Good Neighbor Settlement House in Brownsville.

“We weren’t doing enough shifts at the time to make it worthwhile for GSD to get involved — we just hired workers and paid them,” she said. “However, Get Shift Done is now launched across the entire Rio Grande Valley, so we can help more workers connect to more nonprofits to get more food to more people. How’s that for more?”

Wickett said UWSCC thanked the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation for making the RGV-wide launch of Get Shift Done possible through funding and strategic support. Judy Quisenberry, VBLF executive director, gave kudos to Wickett for bringing the program here.

“It is innovative and we think it will greatly assist a variety of organizations who are distributing food to so many in need, while giving laid-off restaurant and hospitality staff an opportunity to work some shifts while waiting to return to their jobs,” Quisenberry said.

Emily Rodriguez was working as floor supervisor at Dodici Pizza & Wine in Brownsville when the pandemic struck, whittling away her hours at the restaurant and putting her post-graduate plans on hold. After Wickett and Dodici co-owner Dante Pensa got approval to pay workers to put together food boxes at Good Neighbor, Rodriguez answered the call and went to work, also becoming a volunteer coordinator for UWSCC.

With the help of UWSCC event coordinator Wendy De León, Rodriguez was able to spread the word and get other furloughed restaurant employees to help out other nonprofits that have seen a big increase in demand for food assistance, Rodriguez said.

“I’m honored to see this process unfold,” she said. “Brownsville really is a city that represents unity and we’re proving that, even in the midst of uncertainty.”

To make a donation or find out more about Get Shift Done for the RGV visit

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