A day in the life of a Cleveland Food Bank truck driver during COVID-19

John Daniel “JD” Aylward is Christopher Johnston’s nephew and one of several of Johnson’s loved ones who are serving on the frontlines during the COVID-19 crisis. Johnston shares the pride Aylward and his coworker, U.S. Marshal Tony Keffer, feel in serving their fellow Clevelanders at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.

Despite the fact his asthma designated him high-risk and he could have stayed home during the COVID-19 pandemic, John Daniel “JD” Aylward chose to continue driving a delivery truck for the Greater Cleveland Food Bank (GCFB).

He figured, if he followed guidelines, he wouldn’t be at any greater risk than anyone else working there.

Food distribution at the North Coast Municipal Parking Lot at East 9th Street.Nine of the 18 drivers opted for paid leave, fearing risk to themselves or their families. (most of them will return to work this month).

“I wanted to keep working since what we do is important,” says Aylward. “I wanted to make sure I was helping get people what they need because so many are starving or food insecure right now.”

In late February and early March, the already-high demand for nutritious food got even higher. In addition to the impoverished families and of senior housing facility residents—the Food Bank provides just over 16,000 meals a week to 25 different sites owned and operated by the Western Reserve Area Agency on Aging—the organization is now also serving the people who lost their jobs or other income due to COVID-19.

In Aylward’s role as transportation coordinator, he drives his 28-foot box truck for daily deliveries to agencies and makes weekly Thursday distributions at the North Coast Municipal Parking Lot on East 9th Street, just to the west of the Food Bank location on South Waterloo Road.

Except for Thursdays, Aylward, 50, also spends a few hours every afternoon mapping out the daily routing for all of the truck drivers, including several from the Ohio National Guard who have been helping out during their service mandated by Governor Mike DeWine and President Donald Trump.

His typical hours fall somewhere between 6 a.m. and 5:30 or 6 p.m.—a bit later on Thursdays, usually around 7 p.m., after he cleans up after distributions in the Muni Lot.JD uses a pair of Ironclad nylon work gloves with leather palms to wear over the disposable pair to protect his hands.Aylward says the daily COVID-19 truck cleaning rituals are meticulous and repetitive. “You get in your truck in the morning, you wipe it down with bleach, and then that’s clean,” he explains. “Then, every time you get out of the truck, you put rubber gloves on, so anything you touch outside of the truck doesn’t come back into the truck… Then before you get into the truck, you open the door, and you take your gloves off. I usually have a garbage bag right by the door that I throw mine in so that I can keep the truck clean.”

Outside the truck or in the office, Aylward wears a mask with a pocket for cut-up coffee filters and wears disposable gloves under the Ironclad nylon work gloves with leather palms to protect his hands when gripping wooden pallets or countless boxes of food.

He has to replace the gloves and facemask filters between two and eight times each shift, depending on the number of deliveries he’s making.

Aylward is a personable and gregarious person, and he says one of the greatest disappointments during this time is that people don’t want to make small talk.

“I’d talk to a wall for hours,” he jokes. All his deliveries must be dropped off outside the building instead of unpacking them inside.

For the Thursday night Muni Lot car distributions everyone must keep their car windows up—preventing people from talking (and potentially spreading the virus) as they move through the lines.

Aylward says he can usually tell when there are kids in the car because the National Guardsmen loading the boxes in the trunks become more animated and wave or shout “Hello!” People also hold up signs or yell “Thank you” through their windows.

The emergency food boxes individuals and families receive weigh about 20 pounds and include a variety of shelf-stable products—roughly 19 items, including dry beans, rice or pasta, peanut butter, canned entrees, cereal and, depending on the availability of fresh produce, canned or fresh vegetables and fruits.

For the past few weeks, Aylward says, they’ve been adding three-pound bags of apples and oranges to the distributions.

“I have some places I deliver, like St. Martin de Porres High School, where I know a bunch of the people,” he says. “They would always ask, ‘hey, how are you doing? How are the kids?’ But now you can’t relax and talk with people, so that’s been kind of hard for me.”

But he says the toughest part of doing the food distributions is seeing the families with children in the car.

“It terrifies me that some of those parents may have to tell their kids, ‘I’m sorry that you’re hungry. I don’t have anything else in the refrigerator or cupboards to give you to eat,’” says Aylward, the father of three young children, whose wife, Julie, has had to juggle the roles as full-time employee and stay-at-home parent/teacher. “As much as anything, that’s what keeps me working and doing my deliveries.”

Aylward enjoys working with the men and women with Ohio National Guard, who not only help pack, deliver, and manage the Thursday distributions, but also operate an Army tractor-trailer and equipment that can expedite transporting significant amounts of food.

The Cleveland Police Department helps direct traffic, and the Ohio State Highway Patrol reminds everyone to keep their car parked, windows closed, and trunk open. Food Bank staff members and volunteers oversee the registration checkpoint.

Although he once needed a police motorcycle escort to maneuver his truck through a traffic jam on the marginal road, Aylward says he has been impressed with the efficiency of the Thursday night distributions.

“Other than a couple of minor hiccups when we started, everything has gone amazingly smoothly,” he says.

One of the men he’s worked with is Captain Anthony Keffer or Capt. Tony, as he’s known at the Food Bank. Keffer, who works as a U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Ohio in Cleveland when he’s not on active duty in the 37th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, grew up in the nearby Grovewood neighborhood of North Collinwood.

“We are a logistical unit in an Army infantry brigade, so we supply all of the basic needs on the battlefield, whether it’s food, fuel, ammunition and so on,” Keffer explains. “Delivering food and doing home routes or setting up the distribution in a big parking lot comes second nature to us.”

Keffer, 45, joined the Army after high school and served eight years of active duty before switching to the Ohio National Guard. He joined the U.S. Marshals Service in a special recruitment program for veterans, after graduating from Cleveland State University with social sciences degree in 2003.

Keffer says people were weary of the National Guard delivering food at first, but they are now used to it. “Now, they’re holding up signs to say ‘Thank you,” he says. “It’s been nice to watch it evolve throughout the past couple months.”

Keffer says he’s glad people have gotten past the initial embarrassment, too. “I know what it’s like to need,” says Keffer, who grew up in a single-parent household where his mom used food stamps and frequently brought home blocks of cheese. “So it’s great to have a chance to help Clevelanders.”