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.