Food pantries ramp up distribution, take precautions

Washington D.C., Mar 26, 2020 / 03:01 am (CNA).- Despite the closure of churches and lockdowns in place in many areas of the United States due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, many social service agencies are ramping up their efforts to feed the poor, while at the same time taking unprecedented precautions to avoid getting their guests sick.

“The neighbors are mostly just thankful that we have not shut down. Many, many pantries have shut down,” Sister Stephanie Baliga of the Mission of Our Lady of the Angels in Chicago told CNA.

"In good news, most of the pantries that are associated with either a Catholic or Protestant church have not shut down."

The Mission normally serves around 1,000 families a month, and each month processes around 70,000 pounds of food. The food pantry is set up like a grocery store to allow guests to “shop” for the items they need.

Now, to reduce the potential for contamination, the Mission has switched to a bag-based to-go pantry, distributed outside.

Sister Stephanie said they served 260 families last Tuesday, with the local police delivering boxed food to homebound seniors.

"We weren't spending a lot of time talking to people, as you might guess. We were kind of just like: 'Here's your food, I wish we could spend time with you!' It was kind of a very fast 'Here's your food, thanks be to God,'" Sister Stephanie laughed.

Sister Stephanie said her community is blessed to be able to continue to attend Mass and is praying for all those who cannot currently do so.

Volunteers harder to come by

Many food pantries depend on seniors as their most reliable volunteers. But since the eldery are more susceptible to COVID-19, most are staying home.

The Father McKenna Center, a Catholic day shelter for homeless men in Washington DC, normally acts as a drop in center for homeless men where they can get a meal, do laundry, and avail themselves of case management and other aid.

The center normally has 55 regularly scheduled volunteers from the community, but none are now able to come. Besides a small staff, a Jesuit Volunteer Corps volunteer and a Franciscan Missions volunteer are all who remain.

“This is not what they signed up for, but they’re jumping in,” Kim Cox, president of the center, told CNA.

Following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services, the FMC has had to suspend its case management and ask most of the men who come to the center to go elsewhere.

DC’s homeless shelters that house people at night have changed their hours to be open all day, so the homeless can remain there and shelter in place.

The only homeless men that are left at the McKenna Center are a group of ten men who sleep at the center during the hypothermia season, which is coming to a close as spring arrives.

“I think that this is actually a really good opportunity. These guys are more than happy to help us,” Cox said.

In addition to scrubbing and deep cleaning the center’s kitchen, the homeless men have been helping to make masks out of fabric to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

“And they felt good about that…these guys that are currently homeless, it really enhances their dignity for them to do something constructive.”

There are about 120 low-income seniors who live within five blocks of the center, Cox said. The homeless men in the hypothermia program are helping to bag groceries to distribute to the center’s neighbors.

The Capital Area Food Bank asked the McKenna Center to ramp up its food distribution by becoming a community hub, handing pre-made bags of groceries to DC residents who show up, with appropriate precautions taken for social distancing.

“To prepare the first 100 bags of groceries…the men in our hypothermia program helped make that happen,” Cox said.

“They helped to bag the groceries and move them where we need them…it’s terrific that they have this desire to help other people, and that we have this opportunity to give them something to do.”

"We've ramped up our services tremendously”

Walter Ritz, director of HOPE Community Services in New Rochelle, New York, told CNA that the center typically runs a soup kitchen, almost five days a week, and food pantry open every other week.

That was until New Rochelle became a relatively early epicenter of the virus in the United States. Most churches in the area had to suspend services nearly three weeks ago when Governor Andrew Cuomo on March 10 instituted a one-mile radius “containment zone” to try to stop the spread of the virus beyond a local synagogue.

Though the number of new COVID-19 cases has slowed since the restrictions were implemented, like in most parts of the country, places of worship— which typically provide many  volunteers and donations for HOPE— remain shuttered.

“One of the biggest changes we've done is ramp up our services tenfold, in terms of our food pantry," Ritz said.

"We went from serving every other week to serving three times a week so that people have much more opportunity to come to us in this time of great need….Food insecurity is a major concern, and it's the last thing people need to be concerned about at this moment."

Instead of operating the food pantry once a day, like usual, HOPE is now serving every weekday, because other soup kitchens in the area had to close down.

"We've ramped up our services tremendously…we're fortunate to have the national guard here to help out, but it's just been a tremendous change for us."

The second drastic change has been doing everything outdoors. The pantry and the kitchen are both outside, serving in to-go containers.

"HOPE's volunteer base has always been seniors. A large portion of our volunteers are seniors, and we made a call a while back when this started hitting New Rochelle that for the safety of our volunteers, we asked that anyone who was in the high-risk category, for their own safety, not to come into HOPE,” Ritz said.

“So that, right off the bat, reduced our ability to have as much help as we normally do. Even our pantry manager, who typically coordinates how our pantry restocks and goes out, we haven't been able to have her in. So this has all been done with a skeleton crew here, and we're certainly feeling the pinch. It's been very difficult to support the community, but we are still committed to doing it for as long as we can."

"We certainly don't have enough to sustain the level of giving that we have been doing. And we feel that we are going to have to ramp it down very shortly,"

At this time, what HOPE needs most are donations, Ritz said. One major impact on their organization— and on other nonprofits— is that their annual gala, which is a major fundraiser for them each year, has been pushed back to October.

"It's cost us a fairly dependable revenue stream that we've always been able to utilize during the spring and summer," Ritz said.

"We are working more, with less, at the moment. We're committed to our community, and again, we are going to be here as long as we can."

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