Jesus said to them, “…YOU give them something to eat.”
(emphasis added)
– Matthew 14:16

July 22, 2020, article in the Washington Post:

Coronavirus could push 250,000 into hunger in D.C. region, report says

By Kyle Swenson

Up to a quarter of a million people in the Washington area could be thrown into hunger because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report by the Capital Area Food Bank, even as the amount of donated food and the number of distribution sites plummets precipitously.

About half of the food bank’s 450 partner groups and food pantries are closed because of the pandemic — mostly because of buildings closures, a loss of elderly volunteers or a lack of funding. With hundreds of thousands newly out of work, the distribution sites that remain are reporting dramatic increases in demand, ranging from 30 percent to 400 percent.

Approximately 415,000 individuals are food insecure in the region, meaning they consistently lack access to meals. The food bank’s Hunger Report 2020 predicts a 48 percent to 60 percent jump in those struggling to eat in the coming year, after five straight years of decreases.

“The findings of this report are really quite staggering, and it was important for us to sound the alarm,” said Radha Muthiah, the food bank’s CEO. “After years of declining food insecurity rates in our region, we are suddenly seeing this incredible increase.”

The pandemic has killed more than 6,000 in the District, Maryland and Virginia, and infected more than 170,000. Since its arrival, the food bank has seen a 70 to 75 percent reduction in donated food. At the same time, communities that have traditionally not battled with hunger have shown an increased need.

“In the past, while there’s definitely been food insecurity in Fairfax or Montgomery counties, they haven’t had the highest rates,” Muthiah said. “But now in growth rates, the highest is in Fairfax. The second highest is in Montgomery.”

The distress was evident Tuesday morning at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Hyattsville, Md., where cars began lining up at 7:30 for the 9 a.m. food distribution.

By 8:45, 80 vehicles stretched down parallel lines in the parking lot. An additional 50 people stood on the sidewalk.

Mercedes Zelaya, 59, swatted the heat with a fan as she sat behind the wheel of the third car in line. A nursing assistant who has not worked in two years after an injury, she lived with her husband, mother, grown son, and 6-year-old grandson. The pandemic’s economic crunch has affected the family’s work opportunities, forcing her to seek food wherever it was available.

“We have never been in a situation like this before, and it’s scary,” Zelaya said. “This helps,” she continued, pointing at the brown paper bags lined up on tables under the entrance canopy. Some pantries don’t regularly have vegetables, she explained. Others have vegetables but no meat. Others meat only. “You have to know which ones to go to.”

Two cars down the line, Jamie Perla, 41, and a friend waited. Both had been laid off because of the virus — Perla from a hotel and his friend from a restaurant.

“We’ve been coming here for the last month,” Perla explained. “It’s been difficult.”

The food bank covers the District, Prince George’s and Montgomery counties in Maryland, and Arlington, Fairfax and Prince William counties and the city of Alexandria in Virginia — a total population of 6.1 million. It had already planned a comprehensive report this year that would rip back the curtain of the region’s economic prosperity to show inequality beneath.

Despite an average household income of $128,000 in the region, there are vast disparities in factors that play into food access, including household income, education levels, unemployment rates and life expectancy.

“If you are in Anacostia, life expectancy is in the 60s,” Muthiah said. “Whereas in Ward 3, it’s in the 90s. That’s only a 10-mile distance.”

Then came the pandemic. The virus triggered a steady stream of bad economic news — from layoffs and furloughs to the bouncing stock market — that “further exacerbated what we knew existed,” Muthiah said.

Feeding America, a national network of food banks, crunched the numbers on how the pandemic would change food insecurity on a county-by-county level. The predictions were anchored in a 1.5 to 4.8 percentage-point increase in poverty and a 7.6 percentage-point rise in unemployment nationally.

The food bank laid those predictions down on the region’s census tracts, showing a deepening abyss of hunger in historically poor areas and a wave of need sweeping into neighborhoods that are traditionally more affluent.

According to the report, census tract 13.02, in the District’s affluent Cleveland Park and Van Ness neighborhoods, may see a jump from 460 to 870 people in food insecurity in the coming year. Falls Church’s census tract, 5002, could double its hungry population from 310 to 630.

At St. Mark’s on Tuesday, a whistle blew around 9:15 a.m. to signal that the distribution of brown paper bags packed with groceries was beginning. Car engines revved. Those catching naps in their front seats sat up.

Doug Jones, a retiree who once worked in logistics management and now runs the weekly pantry, watched as drivers gave their names and popped their trunks. Volunteers placed a bag inside, containing rice, beans, spaghetti, a V8 juice, a bottle of vegetable oil, two toilet paper rolls and other items.

“This week’s the lowest amount we’ve given out,” Jones explained. “Most of the people we see coming in are Hispanic. And most of them don’t want anyone knowing they are coming. They’re embarrassed.”

Before March, the pantry fed 80 families a week. Since reopening amid the pandemic in mid-April, St. Mark’s has been providing up to 350 bags of groceries on Tuesdays — usually snatched up within two hours. The church has purchased $250,000 in food over the past three months, Jones said.

The accelerated spending and distribution brought St. Mark’s to the brink; in July the food pantry started a GoFundMe page for donations to stay operational, which has brought in nearly $5,400 so far.

“The demand has gone up substantially, and people have donated a lot more,” Jones said. “But it’s still just not enough.”

The food bank says any successful effort to feed the region’s growing population of hungry will mean retooling the current network and creating new options for getting food to people, including creating hubs with significant distribution capacities and sending out “emergency boxes” with 20 to 25 pounds of nonperishables for families in areas with limited food access.

It also means helping closed pantries reopen and keeping struggling pantries going.

“We are engaging with them now to determined why they are closed,” Muthiah said. “Is it because they don’t have volunteers? Is it because they don’t have funding? Is it they don’t have sufficient storage space or refrigeration?”

The food bank also will be on the hook for providing more food out of its own funding. Traditionally the bulk of the food the organization distributed — about 63 percent — came from donations. The U.S. Agriculture Department provided 21 percent of the food, and the food bank purchased 16 percent.

Since April, the food bank has been purchasing more of the food — 28 percent — and relying on USDA programs put in place to offset the pandemic for 46 percent of its distributions. That federal program, however, is set to run out in December. Next year the organization is planning to purchase 37 percent of its meals.

“Pre-covid we might spend $3.5 million or so on food,” Muthiah said. “Next year we plan for $16 million in food purchases.”

Thanks to the continued generosity of Loaves and Fishes donors, both individuals and institutions, the program is able to continue providing food for people, even while pandemic-related restrictions prevent the program from operating at full capacity and from using its indoor space. The work of the program is even more critical these days as the pandemic-induced unemployment rate continues to soar and many individuals and families struggle to feed themselves.

The management board of Loaves and Fishes has decided to give $6,500 to Sanctuary DMV, an organization that assists immigrants and marginalized communities in the DMV area (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia). The funds will be used to purchase food cards for families in the D.C. suburbs at Hispanic grocery stores near the recipients. The program will also give $3,500 for food cards for tenants at an apartment building close to St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church. Loaves and Fishes provided similar assistance to residents of another building in May.

Some members of the management board held a phone call the week of July 12 with the head of Thrive DC, an organization that, like Loaves and Fishes, also operates out of St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church. One of Thrive DC’s programs provides bags of groceries to people in need on Thursday mornings, and Loaves and Fishes is considering supplementing this Thrive DC service to distribute grocery bags on Saturdays when people come for the Loaves and Fishes bagged lunches. Grocery bags will be provided on Saturdays starting on July 25 with an initial distribution of 20 bags.

The management board held its monthly meeting by conference call on Saturday, July 18. The board heard a report from Denize Stanton-Williams, its operations director, about the program’s main operations – serving ready-to-eat meals. She said these operations are going well and continue to offer bagged sandwich lunches on Saturdays and a hot meal on Sundays, both on a take-away basis.

Stanton-Williams said the word is out about the program’s hot meals, which resumed in late June after being on pause since mid-March. The program provided 147 hot meals on July 12. “People are showing up,” she said. “This is necessary. We are helping a lot of people.” She said a woman came who was ineligible for SNAP (formerly known as food stamps) because eligibility is based on last year’s income, which for her was higher and not affected by this year’s pandemic.

And the program continues to provide about 125 sandwich lunches on Saturdays. Stanton-Williams said a person comes on Saturdays who takes some extra lunches and brings them to shut-ins.

The board discussed making more meals available on both Saturdays and Sundays as well as increasing the amount of hot food it provides as a way to meet the critical needs of the neighborhood for food and to make good use of the generous contributions of all of its donors during this continued health and economic crisis.

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

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.

Sanctuary DMV

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.

Support

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.