Thrive DC is one of the nonprofit organizations that rents space in St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, from which Loaves and Fishes also operates. The organization has a new video – a “short documentary” – and many of the scenes and rooms where it was shot will be familiar if you have volunteered at Loaves and Fishes.
By Bill MacKaye
Loaves and Fishes Management Board Member
Owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, at St. Stephen and the Incarnation, the Sunday Eucharist, coffee hour, classes, meetings, even the weekend Loaves and Fishes sit-down meals are on furlough. That doesn’t mean the church is empty, though. The dining room, where Loaves and Fishes and Thrive DC once served sit-down meals, and the nave of the church, where prayers and sacred song and incense arose, are filled with box after box after box of food.
St. Stephen’s has become a different kind of sacred space, a food warehouse for people striving to feed themselves and their families.
When the pandemic struck full force in early March, four organizations with relationships to St. Stephen’s—Thrive DC, We Are Family, Sanctuary DMV, and our own ministry of Loaves and Fishes—swiftly pivoted their activities to meet the challenges posed by a highly infectious disease and the massive unemployment that resulted from stay-at-home orders. Widespread hunger clearly was the major problem, and as usual the problem was especially intense for people at the bottom of the economic ladder.
Thrive DC served 60 people needing free groceries at its regular Thursday food pantry on a Thursday in mid-March, said executive director Alicia Horton. One week later the agency encountered more than 200 needing grocery assistance. That was only the beginning.
“We strategized with our food suppliers and devised a plan to increase our purchases to include enough for immigrant families in crisis, our own community of clients that kept growing and other vulnerable groups, for instance returning citizens—men and women coming out of prison in the midst of the pandemic,” said Horton. Folks mostly with no homes, no jobs, and nowhere to turn.
“Since March 23 we have provided groceries and emergency supplies to over 3,000 men, women, and children in the Washington, D.C., area,” Horton said. “Over the last 12 weeks we have distributed well over 70,000 pounds of groceries.” Those 35 tons of food had rolled down the ramp into St. Stephen’s dining room; then they rolled right out again.
Some of that Thrive food was shared with volunteers of Sanctuary DMV, an all-volunteer collective that “stands in solidarity with immigrants and other marginalized communities,” in the words of Sanctuary DMV volunteer Sandra Moore. Before the pandemic broke out, a principal activity of Sanctuary DMV volunteers was accompanying immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement hearings. With the pandemic shutdown and the explosive growth of unemployment, the sudden greatest need was food.
“An informal effort to serve 200 individuals exploded to a waiting list of 1,200 families in a little over a week,” Moore said. “St. Stephen’s now is the launch pad for ‘pop-up pantries’ that provide food and essentials (diapers, formula, sanitary products, medicines) to last a family two weeks. Every Saturday we use the St. Stephen’s nave to distribute 75 boxes of nonperishables donated by Thrive DC and produce from DC Central Kitchen to volunteers from La Unidad Latina fraternity, who make deliveries to families in the hardest-hit areas.” Sanctuary DMV Food Justice seeks to create mutuality and offer leadership and volunteer opportunities for impacted families so that they are participants and agents of their own freedom. In the three months since it started, Sanctuary DMV Food Justice has provided food and essentials to more than 15,000 people.
We Are Family
Delivering free bags of groceries to senior citizens, many of them frail and lonely, has been a major element of the mission of We Are Family since its beginnings. The coming of the pandemic, however, and the particular threat COVID-19 poses to the old greatly increase the need for its volunteers’ service. Old people who left their residences only cautiously now preferred not to go out at all.
“When St. Stephen’s church building closed, We Are Family first moved its operation outside onto the grounds of St. Stephen’s, assembling grocery bags that also contained coronavirus safety information and coordinating delivery to over 750 seniors in their own homes in March,” said Mark Andersen, co-executive director of the agency. From that point, WAF’s efforts grew steadily more complex, with volunteers regularly calling senior citizens on the agency’s lists, checking on their well-being and taking and filling grocery orders. By June the households WAF was helping had grown to more than 900.
“We began to use the church sanctuary to warehouse emergency supplies of food as well as hard-to-get but essential items like toilet paper, paper towels, masks, gloves and hand sanitizer,” Andersen said. “The flow of food and other supplies in and out of the church building was constant and bustling, helping to meet our seniors’ basic human needs, thus making it practically possible for them to stay safe indoors.”
Loaves and Fishes
Concurrently supplies continued to arrive for Loaves and Fishes, whose sit-down lunches devolved into carryout bag lunches, first sandwiches and bottled water but more recently a more elaborate entrée. And demand grew for the groceries at the Table Church food pantry that Loaves and Fishes hosts on first and third Saturdays. Loaves and Fishes is now in the planning stages of operating its own food pantry on the other Saturdays and will be calling for volunteers from St. Stephen’s congregation shortly.
All four groups would appreciate your financial support. Three agencies accept support at their respective websites:
By Earl Foote
Loaves and Fishes Management Board Member
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly affected our national economy, our collective health, and our daily lives. In conformance with both diocesan and municipal requirements, St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church closed its doors on March 11. That meant Loaves and Fishes had to suspend its weekend meal program—the major component of its mission. The need to supply meals not only continued but also increased as unemployment rose. Many of the recipients of food from our program were not in a position to utilize the relief measures brought into effect to ease financial burdens. The situation has been dire for many people.
The management board of Loaves and Fishes realized that food assistance had to continue. Shortly after the shutdown of the church, Loaves and Fishes resumed limited operations on March 15. Every Saturday and every Sunday, a small number of volunteers gather to make sandwiches and then assemble meal bags also containing bags of chips, fruit, snacks and bottles of water. The program has been handing out about 125 lunches per day. Mask-wearing, keeping social distances in the kitchen, sanitizing of all equipment, sinks, etc. and precautions for personal contact within the carry-out service outside have been put into place. We have been able, therefore, to continue weekend meals, on a limited basis.
Since the program was quickly reconfigured, it has not been employing nearly all of the dozens of volunteers from sponsoring partner parishes and groups who faithfully gathered Saturdays, Sundays, and federal holidays to prepare, plate, and serve meals. However, these groups have continued to support the program with food or the money to purchase food.
In the new system, two of the program’s three part-time employees and two or three volunteers, all under age 60 and in good health, gather to make the sandwiches—chicken salad, tuna salad, ham or cheese—and pack lunch bags. (Loaves and Fishes’ third employee, who has health problems, is on paid leave during this time.)
At mealtime, Loaves and Fishes staffer Delawerence “Dee” Brooks spreads the lunch bags on a table outside, where guests wait in line appropriately separated. This is a grab-and-go situation, not the jolly fellowship of the former seated meals inside, but it’s a meal when otherwise there might not be one.
Due to partial relaxation of restrictions on public services, we are starting a limited resumption of full weekend meals. Effective June 28, hot meals are being prepared in the kitchen for carry-out distribution in compostable containers on Sundays (cold lunches are still being distributed on Saturdays). All sanitary precautions are being observed, and a limited amount of outdoor space is available for consumption of meals.
As the logistics and safety measures of this gradual resumption of normal operations, both behind the scenes (kitchen staff and limited number of volunteers) and for any other activities inside the building, are worked out and adjusted as necessary, it is possible that capacity for serving hot meals will increase.
Meanwhile, Loaves and Fishes has had an opportunity to give a different kind of food assistance. In May, the tenant association of a nearby apartment house put in a request for direct food assistance. Of its 70 units, 16 contained individuals and families facing sudden unemployment and inadequate income. The total number of people, including children, needing assistance was 60. After considering this request, the management board voted to allocate funds to purchase 60 grocery cards (at $50 each, with a five percent bulk discount) from Safeway. While not solving the overall problem, this was a temporary measure that benefited 60 individuals.
Due to decreased expenses in providing only limited meal service, Loaves and Fishes has extra funds to provide additional direct food assistance to people in need. The management board is working with staff at St. Stephen and Incarnation, especially Rev. Sam Dessordi Leite, the senior priest, and others reaching out to households in trouble to identify people who need food. The funds we have available now to buy gift cards and help in other ways will soon be exhausted. If you would like to support us in this relief work, please send a check to Loaves and Fishes marked “gift cards” or donate at our website.
Finally, Loaves and Fishes, in tandem with a partner organization, Table Church, is expanding food pantry service. Impoverished families with children generally prefer to eat at home if free groceries are available to them. More information will be available shortly about the expanded food pantry.
As an organization, we have had to meet the challenge of carrying out our mission in new and different ways. With a combination of carry-out meals, the food pantry, and direct food assistance, we can fulfill our corporate calling in new and flexible ways that meet the changing circumstances of today’s world.
We are still open and operational!
The program has been preparing bag lunches and making them available to guests just outside the kitchen door every weekend since March 15. We have been handing out about 125 lunches per day. The items in the lunch include sandwiches, fruit, snacks, and bottles of water. While no longer providing volunteers, our sponsoring partner parishes and groups have continued to support us with food or the money to purchase food. We are maintaining social distancing, both in the kitchen and in handing out the lunches.
Starting on June 28, the program will provide a hot meal on Sundays, although not at full capacity and still distributed outdoors (due to social distancing requirements, which remain in place). A cold lunch, as described above, will still be distributed on Saturdays. As the logistics and safety measures of this gradual resumption of normal operations, both behind the scenes (kitchen staff and limited number of volunteers) and for any other activities inside the building, are worked out and adjusted as necessary, it is possible that capacity for serving hot meals will increase.
In response to an urgent appeal from the DC Tenants Union, Loaves and Fishes donated $3,000 worth of grocery store gift cards on May 10 to select tenants – a total of 60 people, including families and a few individuals – at an apartment building near St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church. The recipients of this gift, laid off from service-oriented employers in Washington, D.C., and ineligible for federal assistance, have all been struggling to meet rental demands and to feed their families during the coronavirus pandemic. A representative from Misa Alegria (St. Stephen’s Spanish-speaking congregation) and Nigel Collie from Loaves and Fishes presented the donation to leaders of the tenants in front of their building on 15th Street NW. Later, the tenants expressed their sincere gratitude for our support, with several saying that the gift, $50 cards for each tenant, made a big difference for their families. The Loaves and Fishes management board is exploring additional ways to make a difference during this crisis.