As it serves the community, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington relies on community support, and that remains especially true as the agency has ramped up its food assistance outreach to meet the dramatic increase in demand caused by the economic downturn during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That community support could be seen on May 5, as Catholic Charities’ staff members and volunteers gave 1,000 food packages to people lined up in cars at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville, Maryland, receiving key help from students from nearby DeMatha Catholic High School, and logistical help from local police departments who helped manage the traffic flow for the drive-through distribution.

“It was really wonderful to watch… They were a terrific group of kids,” said Joe Dempsey, Catholic Charities’ director of special projects, describing how about 20 student volunteers from DeMatha were polite and friendly to the people they served throughout the day. The students - accompanied by their principal, Daniel McMahon, and by Erin Bright, DeMatha's director of service - joined seven of the agency’s staff members and 15 adult volunteers who helped load each vehicle with a box of food and a family-sized take home meal.

And just like at Catholic Charities’ April 28 food distribution one week earlier at its Susan Denison Mona Center in Temple Hills, Maryland – where 400 boxes of food were given out -- people began lining up in cars outside Northwestern High School several hours early.

Dempsey noted that the food distribution at that Hyattsville location was supposed to begin at noon, but when he arrived there at 9 a.m., a couple hundred cars were already lined up on Adelphi Road and in the school’s parking lot.

“I had this little lady tell me she got there at 7:30,” Dempsey said, remembering the senior citizen whose car was the first in line.

They began distributing the food to the cars early, beginning at 11 a.m., and the last car pulled through at 3 p.m.

Catholic Charities' staff members and volunteers put family-sized take home meals in bags during the May 5 food distribution at Northwestern High School in Hyattsville. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj) 

The Catholic Charities official praised the work of the police in helping with the traffic on the street, noting that officers from the Maryland-National Capital Park Police, Prince George’s County Police Department, the City of Hyattsville Police Department and University Park Police Department assisted in the effort. He estimated that officers with “probably 16 vehicles were helping with traffic on the street and in the parking lot.”

Their help was “indispensable,” Dempsey added.

The volunteers and staff members loading the vehicles followed safety protocols, wearing masks and gloves and keeping social distances between themselves.

They loaded up each car with a box of food with fruits and vegetables, including apples and oranges, onions and a bag of potatoes, along with proteins that included frozen chicken breasts, frozen turkey sausage and salmon fillets. The individuals and families in the vehicles also received a large take-home meal of ziti, salad and rolls from Catholic Charities’ St. Maria’s Meals Program.

The May 5 food distribution served the Langley Park and Adelphi communities, which have a high immigrant population that has been hit hard by the economic downturn, with many workers losing jobs and not having access to unemployment benefits or the federal stimulus check, but still needing to pay for household expenses for rent, utilities and food for their families.

Dempsey said about 90 percent of the people receiving food that day appeared to be Hispanic immigrants. “They were unfailingly cheerful and grateful,” he said, noting that many vehicles had mothers, fathers and children in them, and while people’s car windows remained closed for safety reasons while volunteers loaded up the car trunks with food, the vehicles’ occupants would offer smiles, thumbs-up and waves to show their appreciation for the help.

“It was a great experience for everyone, including the recipients and those lucky to serve them,” Dempsey said.

A student from DeMatha Catholic High School prepares to load a vehicle's trunk with a box of food during Catholic Charities' May 5 food distribution outside Northwestern High School. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)

The Catholic Charities official said that by the end of the day, a box and family-sized meal had been given to people lined up in 850 cars, with another 50 boxes and meals going to people who walked up from the neighborhood, and the last 100 boxes given to the police to distribute at neighborhood community centers and churches.

And thankfully, on that day, no one was turned away. One week earlier at the Mona Center distribution, there was such a large line of cars, that by day’s end, Catholic Charities’ officials had the heartbreaking task of turning away people lined up in 100 more vehicles, after they ran out of food after giving away 400 boxes there.

“It’s dramatic how the need has increased,” Dempsey said, adding, “…The need is enormous, bigger than I’ve ever seen.”

With the help of its dedicated staff members and volunteers, Catholic Charities has greatly expanded its food distribution outreach throughout the Archdiocese of Washington, to meet the growing demand for help, including at the Spanish Catholic Center in Washington, the Southern Maryland Food Bank in Waldorf and the Catholic Charities Center in Wheaton.

That week, Catholic Charities distributed 2,300 food packages throughout the archdiocese, and the agency also gave out thousands of lunches, dinners, snack bags for senior citizens and pantry bags for schoolchildren.

Dempsey said the agency is scouting locations throughout the area where it can provide similar large food distributions without disrupting traffic, and also is looking into how it can support smaller community efforts, like parish food pantries. Feeding the hungry, he said, is “an essential act of charity” that reflects Catholic Charities’ mission and outreach.

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 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. 

Catholic Charities has announced locations for upcoming food distributions:

Montgomery County — Noon on Friday, May 15, at the Activity Center at Bohrer Park, 506 S. Frederick Ave., Gaithersburg, Maryland. Distribution stations will be in front of the Activity Center.

Washington, D.C. — Noon on Tuesday, May 19, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, 400 Michigan Ave., N.E. Distribution will be in the west parking lot off Harewood Road.

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/.

Dr. Lucciola Lambruschini, head of Catholic Charities' dental clinics, helps at Catholic Charities' May 5 food distribution outside Northwestern High School wearing a T-shirt with the slogan, “Say Yes,” reflecting a phrase that Msgr. John Enzler, the agency's CEO and president, says has guided him as a priest when people ask for help. (CS photo/Andrew Biraj)