This week volunteers will place some new items in the meal kit boxes that will find their way to 1,750 southwestern Pennsylvania homes through an annual United Way project.

The boxes help families have access to healthy and nutritious food, the goal of the nonprofit organization and its partners as the endeavor marks its third year. The additions — ingredients for a birthday cake and a box of candles — provide something for the recipients that is just as important as the rest: dignity.

Wendy Koch, the United Way senior director of regional engagement, said after last year’s event, she wanted “to focus on the exact needs of the people getting the boxes.” So the agency did some research, asking the organizations that distribute the meal kit boxes how they could be more useful.

“A number said their families wanted cake [mixes] and icing so they always had supplies to make birthday cakes if they needed them,” she said. “We added in the birthday candles. This is something we all take for granted. It was such a humble request that we couldn’t not honor it.”

All that research and planning culminates this week when 295 volunteers gather at Acrisure Stadium’s Great Hall to “shop” for the items that will provide six meals — two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners — for a family of four over a weekend as well as shelf-stable staple items and those birthday cake ingredients. Monday’s work includes setting up tables and organizing the food. Tuesday is packing day. And on Wednesday the 24 organizations throughout the United Way’s five-county service area will come to the stadium to pick up their requested number of boxes.

Major funding for the project is provided by Bayer and the Pittsburgh Steelers with in-kind support from Giant Eagle. The Steelers donate the space and support some of the food costs. Giant Eagle provides those pantry and staple items at its cost to the United Way and trucks it all to the stadium. Bayer contributes because as a company it focuses its charitable work on food insecurity to support the community.

Each year recipe cards get slipped into the boxes, too, Koch said. This year’s include vegetarian chili, chicken quesadilla, rice and beans, pasta salad with tuna, pancakes, and honey oatmeal. Finding recipes with ingredients the United Way can afford “can be a challenge,” Koch said. 

Volunteers “shop” for the food items, as they did last year at Acrisure Stadium. (Natalie Lacek/United Way)

Instead of a Giant Eagle gift card this year, the United Way added some pantry staples to the boxes people are not always able to find at a food bank or afford at a grocery store such as spices, canola oil and taco seasoning — all items highly requested by the participating agencies.

Again, this is done with care.

“[The organizations] tell me how it’s a thoughtful box, with so many items that feed their families,” she said. “What we really wanted to convey, with the recipe cards and more, is feeling like it’s Hello Fresh. We wanted them to have that sense of excitement and share some dignity with people receiving the boxes. [It’s] not just something dumped off the shelf. We were very intentional with the boxes.”

The volunteers divide into groups for the work, packing the food items, inserting the recipe cards, sealing the boxes and serving as quality control. This year they are coming from Carnegie Mellon University, Bayer, Federated Hermes, Baird and UPMC, as well as some smaller businesses and companies and individual repeat United Way volunteers, Koch said.  

“We have four stations of boxes on pallets, and we do have a system,” she said, noting that she is the logistics system for the entire event. “When you are in the moment, it feels like organized chaos, but everyone has a role and just does it.”

She has also found that people “really do like to pack a box!” Many other United Way volunteer events have engagement-type activities as part of the efforts, asking volunteers to think about the families and the challenges they face. At this event, with so many volunteers, that can be difficult.

“Our volunteers absolutely love doing this event,” Koch said. “For the volunteers, there’s something very tangible about seeing 30 pallets of food and by the end of the night it’s all boxed up ready to go to families. You’ve accomplished that work and know what is going to be the impact.”

That message is “All our residents want to live happy, successful lives,” she said. “[To do that,] we have to get to the root causes [of food insecurity]. We can help people understand more about that, and that fosters community.”

She finds it interesting how some of the participating agencies use the boxes and in such different ways. “Some hold on to it and give it to families in true crisis,” she said. “Others use it to distribute during their events. All tell me how it’s a thoughtful box, with so many items that feed their families.” 

If she could, Koch would hold this event several times a year, if the United Way could find sufficient funding. The effort began after the pandemic waned, and leaders knew families were still struggling so much, she said.

Food and other basic needs are the foundation of well-being for individuals and families, the United Way event news release noted. As the cost of food continues to rise, more and more families across southwestern Pennsylvania — the United Way serves residents of Allegheny, Armstrong, Butler, Fayette and Westmoreland counties — continue to have difficulty affording groceries. 

The boxes’ sweet addition this year is special to Koch. “The birthday cakes are warming my heart this year,” she said. “It allows the families to celebrate. All they need to do is reach into their pantries.”

Volunteers divide into groups for the work, including packing the food items into the boxes, as they did in 2023. (Natalie Lacek/United Way)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at