As the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and its toll on the physical and financial health of individuals, the Archdiocese of Washington has stepped up its efforts to assist those who are struggling to feed their families during this time of crisis.

“The Office of Social Concerns is expanding our (parish food pantry) program to include parish schools in the archdiocese, and looking to also facilitate conversations with campuses for those students facing food insecurity as well,” said Genevieve Mougey, the director of Office for Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Because it has broadened its outreach beyond just parishes to assist those in need, the Archdiocese of Washington has renamed its Parish Pantry Support Project. It is now called the Community Food Security Program.

Mougey said the name change reflects the fact that “in the first eight weeks the program has been up and running, we began receiving requests (for food) from parish schools.”

She added that “looking at the trajectory on how the virus is affecting food security, we think there could be other opportunities to expand beyond parishes and parish schools, maybe working with Catholic entities and organizations – afterschool programs or something of that nature – who might need to apply for grants.”

The Community Food Security Program began this past summer with an initial startup of $425,000. The program has distributed about $200,000 so far in grants of between $500 and $5,000 to local Catholic pantries assisting those who are having trouble feeding their families.

“When you look at what we’ve given since Aug. 2, we can say the need is great,” Mougey said. “The plea from schools to help young children and school-age children with food insecurity issues is a gut-clencher. We are seeing more parents who are specifically going to schools for help.”

Mougey said “money (for the Community Food Security Program) comes from a variety of different sources, including a bequest that the archdiocese received to specifically to help people who are in poverty in the archdiocese and other sources, including grants and donors.”

She said that Community Food Security Program opened July 21 and the first grants were distributed on Aug. 1. 

A survey taken this summer found that 67 or nearly one-half of the archdiocese's 139 parishes now operate food pantries. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, the number of people those parishes are serving is estimated to have doubled to 15,000 people weekly, as has the cost for providing food assistance to meet the growing demand. 

During the pandemic, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington has expanded its outreach and has been holding large-scale food distributions throughout the area, giving food packets to 500 people who line up for hours beforehand to get help. Catholic Charities’ 24th large-scale food distribution will be held Saturday Nov. 7 at 9 a.m. at the parking lot of Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg.

“We left it open ended for parishes to decide how to use the grant money,” Mougey explained. “Some have used it to provide toiletry bags. Some use it to restock their shelves. Some have spent it on shelving units to stock food. We left the parameters of the grant really open because we don’t know what the parishes need.”

One of the parish programs that has received grant money from the archdiocesan Community Food Security Program is the food pantry at St. Hugh of Grenoble Parish in Greenbelt, Maryland. Money received from the program was used by St. Hugh Parish to purchase supermarket gift cards so those who need the food pantry can also get eggs, bread, milk and other perishables they would not normally have.

“We feed about 200 families a month, and we’ve doubled the numbers we serve since the pandemic began,” said Mary Ann Tretler, president of St. Hugh’s Ladies of Charity, which coordinates the food pantry.

She said that in working with the parish food pantry, “you see firsthand just what people are going through. You can see the numbers (of people affected by the pandemic) on the news, but doing this you can see how it truly impacts people.”

The St. Hugh food pantry serves the entire community, not just Catholics. It is also supported by other churches and organizations within the city.

“The (Mishkan Torah) synagogue, particularly around their high holy days, collects food for us. All of the community brings food or money,” Tretler said. “We are Greenbelt’s food pantry. Any food donations at other churches (in the city) come to us. The local Baptist church had to shut down their pantry, and they called to make sure we could handle it.”

The parish is also the beneficiary of food collected at the city’s local cooperative supermarket, which sells bags of grocery items for $5 that customers purchase for donation to the St. Hugh food pantry. The supermarket has a bin where the food bags are collected and picked up regularly by St. Hugh volunteers.

“I don’t know what we would do if we didn’t have that,” Tretler said. “They’ve worked with us to change up the items (in the bag) every three to four weeks. Since the pandemic, we have been picking up more than 100 bags a week. That kind of giving usually happens at Christmas or Thanksgiving, but it has been happening ever since the pandemic started.”

She added that St. Hugh Parish’s food pantry “is very unusual because we hand out from the rectory.”

“Other places have a set time when volunteers hand out food, like maybe once a week,” Tretler said. “We make pick up available at the rectory Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. This makes for wider distribution. People can make an appointment (to pick up food), because we know they need to work and make money so, we work around their schedules.”

Volunteer Barbara Hamilton brings items to a storeroom for the food pantry at St. Hugh of Grenoble Parish in Greenbelt. Below, bags of food are given out throughout the week at the parish's rectory to members of the community who need food assistance. (CS photos/Andrew Biraj)

In addition, the parish works “very closely with the city of Greenbelt so we can help direct people to other resources such as for help with paying their utilities or rent,” Tretler said.

“About half of them (food pantry clients) are first timers who have never been in this position where they have to humble themselves and come and ask for help,” Tretler said. “They tell you their stories – a lot of them work in jobs where they got immediately laid off. And even those with jobs who were called back, some are working part-time so they cannot buy food and pay the rent or other expenses.”

The people who come to the food pantry “are extremely grateful,” she said. “We even have one family (who uses the food pantry) come once a week to make up the food bags because they want to help and give back in some way.”

That gratitude, she added, also extends to those who volunteer at the pantry. “When you think of your own problems and start to grumble you think, ‘Oh my God, I have nothing to grumble about,’” she said. “It is wonderful getting to know these folks and brightening their day in some little way. It is incredibly rewarding.”

Addressing the needs of people who live in poverty and those facing food insecurity “is a Catholic approach because we pull together the works of charity and social advocacy,” Mougey said. “As Catholics, we obviously we care for those who are poor and we care for those who are suffering, and there is no litmus test if they are worthy – we have an obligation to make sure people have their needs met.”

Mougey said that archdiocesan Secretariat for Development is seeking grants from groups, organizations and foundations while also “alerting the faithful of the archdiocese to the opportunity to participate in this activity. This program highlights the charity that the archdiocese undertakes as a result of our faith.”

Volunteers Barbara Hamilton and Joseph Panossian sort out food to be given out at the food pantry of St. Hugh of Grenoble Parish in Greenbelt, which partners with other religious and community groups to serve those in need. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj) 

Speaking of the “ongoing generosity of the men, women and children of the archdiocese” who have donated to the program, Mougey called it “a beautiful thing we can attribute to how the Gospel drives the lives of the people of the archdiocese. It is important to know that here are people who care about other people, even if they do not know them personally.”

“Taking care of our brothers and sisters across the archdiocese – that is a real story of hope and that is a gift during this pandemic,” she said.

For more information on the Community Food Security Program or to donate, go online to https://adw.org/ways-to-give/food-pantries/ .