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Shopping for a stranger: Volunteer grocery service at Aviano delivers

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Tory Cusimano
  • 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs


The commissary at Aviano Air Base, Italy, has been more crowded since the Italian government and the Department of Defense implemented restrictions to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Not only is it one of the few places servicemembers and their families are authorized to go, but it’s also where members of the community can connect with people they don’t live or work with- as long as they stay one meter apart. 


What’s most unique about the situation at the commissary, however, isn’t the widely spaced lines of tape on the ground or the newly-installed plastic barriers separating cashiers from customers. It’s that when you see someone lined up for checkout, the groceries in their cart might belong to a total stranger.


A plea for help


Since the onset of the COVID-19 epidemic, Italy has been among the hardest-hit countries. The Italian government responded by laying down a series of decrees limiting things like travel, holding large gatherings, and eventually even the freedom to go outdoors. As the situation developed and the decrees kept coming, the leadership team at the 31st Fighter Wing knew it needed to act quickly. 


“We’ve been doing our best to stay in front of the Italian laws as they’ve been changing,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. James Lund, 31st Fighter Wing Staff Judge Advocate and resident legal expert. “Do they apply to base, or do they not? And if they do, how do they apply?”


Knowing, however, was just the first step. The 31st FW also faced the task of addressing issues the limitations would cause for anyone assigned to Aviano. In an effort to communicate clearly and quickly the base began a series of virtual town halls on Facebook, designed to both relay new information and listen to the community for questions and concerns. 


Early on, an issue that popped up consistently was groceries. Due to specific Italian guidance on commuting and shopping, single parents and spouses of deployed service members were unable to take their children to shop for food. 


“How am I supposed to shop for groceries if I can’t bring my kids with me?” said one comment during an early town hall. “Single parents need help!” read another. 


Leaders of the 31st Fighter Wing heard the plea and got to work.


Solving the puzzle


U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Joseph Finney, superintendent of mission support for the 606th Air Control Squadron, was among the group entrusted to find a solution. The bones of the program quickly became clear: volunteers would go to the commissary and shop for groceries on behalf of those unable to go themselves, then drop those groceries off outside the member’s front door. 


According to Finney, though, coming up with a solution created even more questions. For instance, how could someone pay for groceries from home?


It took a fair amount of time researching different types of web services and even mobile apps.  We were very concerned with the privacy and security of the customers,” Finney said.


Next, the group put out a call for volunteers. The response was overwhelming. More than 170 people stepped up to help their fellow Wyverns in need.


“It’s great to know so many people are eager to help,” Finney said. With all the volunteers, the program could more than meet the delivery demand.


Under the Italian decrees, however, reasons for travel outside of one’s home or place of work were limited. To ensure the volunteers could move freely, they were only assigned deliveries in or near the areas they live. The 31st FW also coordinated with local authorities to identify the volunteers, providing an added layer of protection.


“Local mayors appreciated and supported the base giving attention to people living in the community,” said Ms. Monica Del Rizzo, 31st Fighter Wing Public Affairs community relations representative. “The program ensures American families in their municipalities are not forgotten or overseen.”


Making the drop


According to the volunteers, grocery shopping for somebody else is tough.


“You feel the pressure of wanting to make sure you get everything correct on their list,” said U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Kahlia Rainer, 56th Helicopter Maintenance Unit instrument and flight control technician. “You don’t want to disappoint the person stuck at home.”


Rainer zig-zagged through the commissary, going from produce to the frozen section and back again. She stopped for long periods of time, texting back and forth with someone she’d never met about groceries she didn’t typically purchase. 


For Rainer, though, it was no problem. The grocery service is one small piece indicative of the overall culture at the 31st Fighter Wing.


“This community is your family,” Rainer said. “That’s the best way to describe it, the way this base operates to help each other.”


She saw some of the comments from spouses and single parents during the early town halls, and it led Rainer to act in support of others.


“I’ve never been in that position, but for some reason it just kind of resonated with me,” Rainer said. “So I was like ‘okay, I need to get in on this and figure out how I can help.’”


Once she arrived at the recipient’s home, Rainer carefully placed the groceries at the front gate. With a wave and a few kind words, she was off to finish her workday. 


Working to improve


As Italy moves into phase two of its battle against COVID-19, the grocery delivery service at Aviano can adjust knowing it’s been a success so far.


We’ve received lots of messages of gratitude for the volunteers making the service a reality,” Finney said. “We’ve had a fair amount of repeat customers as well, which I think says something about the satisfaction of the support received.


Even so, Finney says the program is always getting better.


“We are still making changes as we find issues that need adjustments or tweaks,” said Finney.


Regardless of what may come in the fight against COVID-19, members of the community at Aviano Air Base can rest assured that when in need, help will always be delivered.