When the Archdiocese of Washington did a recent study of parish food pantries, it found that 67 or nearly one-half of the archdiocese’s 139 parishes operated pantries, and during the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic downturn, that outreach has doubled, with parishes now providing food to an average of 15,000 people weekly. The cost for providing the food assistance to meet that growing demand has also doubled, amounting to an estimated $200,000 per month.

The Archdiocese of Washington has launched a Parish Pantry Support Project, an initiative to support the food pantries operated by local parishes. The project launched in July has an online giving page, so local Catholics can provide donations to parish food pantries providing frontline help to people impacted by the COVID-19 crisis. 

Joe Gillmer, the archdiocese’s executive director of development, said the dramatic rise in demand has been seen in parishes across the archdiocese, including at food pantries in the city of Washington and at suburban and rural parishes in Maryland. 

“It’s an equal opportunity need across the archdiocese,” Gillmer said, noting the parish food pantries are serving members of their own communities, their neighbors, who have fallen on hard times.

Volunteers prepare to distribute food from the pantry of St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Maryland on July 2, 2020. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

‘Feeding God’s people’

Rhonda Burriss, who coordinates the food pantry at St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Maryland, working with fellow parishioner Pam White, remembers the words of relief that a woman told her after driving to receive food from the pantry on a Saturday morning during a rainstorm.

The lady told her, “I was praying the whole way here, that you would be here.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic and economic downturn, the number of people seeking food assistance from St. Joseph’s pantry has grown from about 10 families per week to an average of 50 families a week. And like other parish food pantries throughout the archdiocese, St. Joseph’s pantry faces the challenge of replenishing its stock of food to meet the growing demand for help, or face the risk of shutting down that outreach at a critical time.

Pam White noted that the parish’s food pantry is a service of its St. Vincent de Paul Society's ministry, with a mission of “feeding God’s people.” The ministry also tries to assist people needing urgent help with utility or rent payments.

In normal times, the pantry’s volunteers would get to know some of the people they were serving, but during the pandemic, strict safety measures like wearing face masks and practicing social distancing has made it difficult for them to talk with the people seeking help.

The pandemic has led to many new people coming to the pantry, Burriss said. “For a lot of them, they’ve never used this service before.” 

White added that some of the people now coming to St. Joseph’s food pantry for help on Saturday mornings have said they are caring for family members with the coronavirus, or that they lost their job and are unable to provide for their family. The parish and its pantry are located in Prince George’s County, the county that has had the largest number of COVID-19 cases in the state of Maryland.

Wearing face masks and gloves as safety precautions against the spread of the coronavirus, volunteers from the food bank of St. Joseph Parish in Largo, Maryland, participate in a July 2 food distribution at the parish. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The food pantry volunteers there typically give people two bags of groceries and a bag of meat products, like frozen chicken, ham and fish sticks.

St. Joseph parishioners provide donations of food and monetary support to the pantry, which has had a partnership for the past decade with the Capital Area Food Bank. 

Washington Auxiliary Bishop Roy Campbell Jr., St. Joseph’s pastor, noted that one of the families in the parish donated $15,000 to support the food pantry’s outreach, and the pantry has also received donated food from community groups, including a local police department.

Burriss said she sees her service at the food pantry as a calling from God. The reward for her, she said, is seeing “just the smile on people’s faces, the sense of relief (that) they got food.”

Bishop Campbell said the outreach reflects the Gospel message of “bringing the love of Christ to others.”

“That’s what we’re here for,” he said. “God created all of us. He calls us to love each other, and this is a way we show it, by sharing what we have with each other.”

Volunteers at the food pantry at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Washington, D.C., confer before a July 2 food distribution there. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Coming through in a crisis

When Josephite Father Michael Thompson became pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Washington, D.C., in July 2019 after serving as superior general of his religious order that has an historic mission of serving the African American community, he was impressed by the strong outreach offered by the Ladies of Charity in the parish’s food pantry.

When the COVID-19 outbreak caused a shutdown of public Masses and some businesses and services due to safety precautions against the spread of the virus, the pantry’s volunteers were contacted to see if they would be willing to continue helping in that outreach.

“I said this is a most critical time for us to serve people,” remembered the priest, who felt the food pantry’s outreach would be crucial at a time when people in the community had become sickened or lost jobs in the wake of the pandemic.

Father Thompson said the majority of volunteers said “yes.”

“They felt like I felt, the people really need assistance now,” he said.

Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish adopted strict safety standards, with volunteers wearing face masks and gloves and having their temperature checked, and setting up markers for people to stand six feet apart to maintain social distancing. 

“We have to protect ourselves and our clients,” the pastor said.

Relying on donations from parishioners, the Capital Area Food Bank, Catholic Charities and other community groups, the food bank at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish is serving an increasing number of people during the coronavirus pandemic, now helping about 70 to 80 individuals or families during its Thursday distributions. The parish also gets food from government programs and does fundraising during the year to support the pantry.

And like other parishes, Our Lady of Perpetual Help has had members of its parish family diagnosed with COVID-19, but the food bank volunteers “continue to serve,” Father Thompson said.

“It makes a pastor overjoyed to see the Gospel message is being fulfilled,” he said, adding, “They (the volunteers) had to reach out and be Christ to others. They came forward in their discipleship to serve the needs of others.”

Volunteers at the food pantry of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish in Washington, D.C., get ready to distribute food to people on July 2, 2020. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

Gladys Reid, who directs the food pantry at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish, noted that the parish has been purchasing fresh fruits and vegetables to add to the balanced mix of grocery items provided to people, including staples like cereal, peanut butter and canned goods.

“We’ve done this for years,” she said of the Ladies of Charity’s outreach at the parish’s food pantry. “This is what we do, we feed people, anybody who comes… Nobody goes away hungry.”

Reid said that they get to know some of the members of the community coming to the pantry.

“It’s heartwarming to know you’re helping somebody,” she said, adding, “Everything’s given with love.”