In a time of uncertainty, one thing U.S. women religious and others who have been providing food during the COVID-19 pandemic know for sure is that the number of those who need food assistance has risen dramatically and continues to rise.
Officials from Feeding America, a national network of more than 200 food banks, told The Washington Post they have distributed 5 billion meals this year, and 40% of their food bank clients are people who have never relied on them before.
And food insecurity is projected to get worse: There could be 50 million food-insecure Americans by the end of 2020, up from 35 million at the start of 2020, the Post reported. But unless Congress can break its deadlock on what assistance to provide, the federal food programs supplying about half of the food that food banks distribute will end.
At a New York City food pantry that is an initiative of Hour Children, a ministry headed by St. Joseph Sr. Tesa Fitzgerald, the number of families using the pantry’s service is roughly double what it was over the summer.
Kellie Phelan, the food pantry’s coordinator, is struck by the number of new faces she sees in the lines every week. Many are young people, and many are coming from different boroughs in New York City.
“People are coming from everywhere,” she said.
Phelan told Global Sisters Report that while the number of families using the pantry’s services declined in the summer months from an early peak during the initial months of the pandemic, the numbers now are as high as they’ve been all year — about 700 a week.
The pantry, located in the Long Island City area of the borough of Queens, is open three times a week, and each day is averaging more than 200 clients, Phelan said. And she expects the numbers to stay that high or even increase in the coming months.
“There’s a lot of panic thinking right now,” she said. “Nobody knows what tomorrow is going to bring.”
Local community groups in Queens are helping restock pantry shelves through food drives in which volunteers ask shoppers at nearby grocery stores to buy canned foods and other nonperishables and donate them as they leave the stores.
Those efforts have been a huge success, Phelan said, helping to “completely restock” the Hour Children pantry shelves. “We’re beyond grateful.”
Because of social distancing concerns, the pantry earlier this year changed procedures, and clients now come to a table where they receive a prepackaged bag of food items rather than entering the pantry premises and picking items “supermarket style.” Those procedures remain in place, Phelan said, as do social distancing guidelines of people standing 6 feet apart.
But even with those guidelines in place, Phelan said, many clients are uncomfortable, particularly elderly people who are guarded about standing in line.
“It can be a scary situation for them,” she said. “They are scared, sad, but still grateful.”
The House of Bread, a 40-year-old soup kitchen in the poorest neighborhood of Hartford, Connecticut, has also seen a change in its regular patrons.
St. Joseph Sr. Maureen Faenza, one of the kitchen’s directors, said people addicted to drugs and those experiencing chronic homelessness are no longer the usual faces who come through for one hot breakfast and one hot lunch a day.
Though some still visit the kitchen, now, the House of Bread is largely seeing “neighborhood people, poor people, families who are struggling because they have lost their jobs and income,” she said.
Faenza, co-founder and co-director of the House of Bread alongside St. Joseph Sr. Theresa Fonti, said since the start of the pandemic, the city has placed their homeless clients in hotels or other housing while their daytime shelter attached to the kitchen has had to shut down because of the pandemic.
Fortunately, the House of Bread was able to maintain operations throughout the pandemic, though they have had to manage with fewer volunteers, as some were elderly and couldn’t take on the risk of exposing themselves to the virus, Faenza said.
With glass partitions protecting patrons who dine in, the kitchen is able to continue serving about 200 meals a day, with half of the visitors choosing to take their meals to go. And while the House of Bread usually delivers an additional 600 meals to children throughout the city, local schools have managed to provide those meals for the time being, though Faenza said they’ll restart that program in January.
In terms of stock, Faenza said they haven’t had a problem: This year’s annual fundraiser was done as a drive-thru Nov. 18 and was “extremely successful,” Faenza said. “We’ve been fortunate as far as donations and food.”
But just a few miles over in West Hartford, Mercy Sr. Beth Fischer’s ministry has had to make some adjustments that — while understandable and necessary — have been tough to swallow; namely, the lack of human connection between the volunteering students and the patrons at local food pantries.
Fischer oversees the community engagement office at the University of St. Joseph, where she works with students who are volunteers and those who do community clinicals and internships.
“For the 15 years I’ve been doing this work through the university, I’ve seen the transformation on the part of the students who get to meet people that they might not necessarily meet, but in a class, they might hear about it. And these experiences really touch them,” she said.