When word got out that Catholic Charities would be distributing food at 4 p.m. on April 28 at its Susan Denison Mona Center in Temple Hills, Maryland, people began lining up there in cars several hours early. The economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak could be seen there in Prince George’s County, which according to the Maryland Department of Health by the end of that day had 5,496 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 195 deaths, the most of any county in the state.

“I felt there was great anxiety in people coming there, especially when I said we were running low, you could see fear in their eyes,” said Scott Lewis, the executive director of the Enterprises, Education and Employment Department of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington.

Since the coronavirus outbreak and shutdown resulted in a sharp economic downturn in the Washington area and across the country beginning in March, Catholic Charities has seen a dramatic increase in the need for food assistance at its programs throughout Washington, D.C., and the five surrounding Maryland counties it serves.

During an intermittent rain at the drive-up April 28 food distribution at the Mona Center, 15 Catholic Charities staff members and volunteers wearing masks and gloves distributed 400 packets of food. Each vehicle received a 27-pound package put together by Catholic Charities’ SHARE Food Network, containing fresh fruits and vegetables including apples, oranges, cabbage, carrots, potatoes and onions, and protein items including chicken, ground beef, fish fillets and sausage.

They also distributed nearly 1,000 hot roast beef meals as take-home dinners provided by Catholic Charities’ St. Maria’s Meals service, which according to Lewis usually serves about 350 to 400 meals on Tuesday afternoons to those in need at the Mona Center.

Lewis said he heard stories from some of the people pulling up in their cars, describing how they were picking up food to feed their families or to help a neighbor. One man said he was trying to assist 11 family members. It was clear to him that people really needed the food, he said, noting, “They were so thankful and grateful, even waiting in line so long, they said, ‘Thank you for this blessing,’ (and) ‘Thank you for doing this.’” 

Besides food, recipients also received information on other assistance available from Catholic Charities, including medical care, remote immigration legal services and financial literacy mentoring. The agency’s Financial Stability Network is helping poor people in the community to receive their federal stimulus checks.

The most heartbreaking part of the day at the Mona Center, Lewis said, was telling people in about 100 cars stretching at the end of the line that all 400 food packages had been distributed.

“That’s the hardest part of the whole thing, having to turn people away,” he said.

The next day, Catholic Charities would be distributing another 400 food packets at the Spanish Catholic Center’s pantry in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., reflecting an eight-fold increase in its food assistance at that location. Just before the crisis, the pantry gave out 54 food packets for families at its weekly distribution there. Lewis noted that this week’s food packets at the Spanish Catholic Center would include blocks of cheese and also yogurt donated by a dairy in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

People lined up in their cars for hours at Catholic Charities' Mona Center in Temple Hills, Maryland, where the agency's staff members and volunteers loaded a box of food into each vehicle and also provided them with warm dinners from the St. Maria's Meals program. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Officials from the Catholic agency have noted similar dramatic increases at its food distribution programs in Montgomery County and Southern Maryland. Lewis said some of those getting food assistance are furloughed workers, and others include undocumented immigrants who’ve lost their jobs during the shutdown but are ineligible for government stimulus checks.

Catholic Charities is on the front lines of the fight against hunger in the region all year round. In 2019, the agency provided more than 2.5 million meals to those in need and distributed more than 1 million pounds of food to local pantries. The organization served 16,000 warm meals through the weekly St. Maria’s Meals weekly dinner program, and more than 34,000 people were able to purchase affordable, nutritious groceries through its SHARE Food Network.

To serve the Langley Park and Adelphi communities – another part of the area severely impacted by the coronavirus economic downturn –Catholic Charities is planning a major food distribution effort for noon, Tuesday, May 5, at Northwestern High School, 7000 Adelphi Road in Hyattsville. The May 5 distribution in Hyattsville is expected to be twice as large as the April 28 Mona Center outreach, with 1,000 food packages being given out, and the agency is promoting that effort by alerting its partners serving that area’s large immigrant population. Distributions also are being scheduled for Landover and other locations.

“We’re going to continue to do this,” Lewis said.

He praised the faithful and dedicated work of Catholic Charities’ staff members and volunteers, noting that some whose work has been curtailed by the coronavirus precautions, like dental clinic workers, have been re-deployed to help in the food distribution effort, doing things like making boxes and packaging food. He noted that while they all follow recommended safety precautions in carrying out their work, they are still risking their own health to serve others during the coronavirus crisis.

“They’re doing an incredible job, just walking in, doing something they don’t normally do. They’re coming in and helping out with everything they have to feed people in the community, because that’s the greatest need at the moment,” he said. “Some people are driving 50 miles to our warehouse to do it.”

Scott Lewis, who directs Catholic Charities' food outreach efforts, praised the dedicated service of its staff members and also the help of volunteers, shown above, who on April 28 distributed 400 packages of food to people lined up in cars at the Mona Center in Temple Hills. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

To draw support for its increased food assistance outreach, Catholic Charities had a Virtual Food Drive on Holy Thursday that raised more than $86,500, with support from 366 donors from parishes throughout the archdiocese. 

For people who would like to help, Catholic Charities has a special COVID-19 response page that lists its food pantries and its other services, at https://www.catholiccharitiesdc.org/covid19-resource-guide/.

Lewis said that in addition to online monetary donations for Catholic Charities’ food assistance efforts, the agency has also encountered a critical need for donations of diapers, baby formula in cans, and baby cereal and baby food, that can be shipped to or dropped off at the agency’s downtown headquarters at 924 G Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20001.

He emphasized that even as a “new normal” unfolds when government restrictions are eased regarding stay-at-home orders or limits to the sizes of public gatherings and businesses and workplaces begin to reopen, “this economical issue will not go away for the people we serve… The economic crisis for them will continue for months to come.”