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Food for Holy Week

Volunteers pack up food in Chelsea, Mass., one of the areas hit hardest by the pandemic.

More than a year after COVID-19 first ravaged the country, people are being vaccinated, slowly returning to work, and receiving government stimulus checks to help recover. Things are looking up, but this Holy Week, food insecurity remains a problem in some locations.

The Salvation Army in Lima, Ohio, helped answer the call by preparing special Easter food boxes for 300 families. The boxes were distributed drive-thru style on Tuesday and Wednesday of this week.

“They received everything they need to make an Easter meal, including a ham, dinner rolls, butter, gravy, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, yams, and juices,” said Major Debbie Stacy, the corps officer in Lima.

Stacy said the boxes also included Life Books, which feature a recap of the Old Testament and the entire book of Mark, and copies of the Easter War Cry, a Salvation Army magazine.

At the same time, Stacy’s husband, Major Jeff Stacy, and program assistant James Eller distributed around 40 special Holy Week boxes to the youth of the corps on Monday. The boxes included games, activities, crafts, Log Ina Bible lesson, and snacks to celebrate Holy Week, “as if they were in our building,” Stacy said.

“There’s seven nights of lessons to go from Monday to Easter Sunday,” she said. “This is a special box for our families.”

Stacy said the number of people seeking food assistance is going down slightly in Lima, but some elderly still need help. The corps offers pre-made “grab-and-go” meals on Sunday nights and about 80-100 people are still coming, including a family of eight.

Before COVID hit last March, people in Lima were allowed to pick up one food box every 30 days. That changed to once a week after COVID and is now every two weeks.


Stubborn poverty

Some corps in the USA Eastern Territory, such as the Queens Temple Corps in Jackson Heights, N.Y., are still battling food insecurity.

Major Guillermo DiCaterina, the corps officer of the Queens Temple, said the corps saw 40-60 families a week seeking help at the food pantry prior to COVID.

“Right now, we do more than that in just one day,” he said. “It hasn’t changed since March of last year. Right now, we’re probably assisting between 180 to 200 families every week.

“We’ve seen a tremendous increase from the very beginning because of the need in the community.”

The soup kitchen at the corps served 150 people a day before COVID, but that number has jumped to 400-450 since last March, DiCaterina said.

“Many of them work in restaurants and are really struggling,” he said. “Businesses are opening back up, but we still have hundreds of people seeking assistance every day. We haven’t seen any change to be honest with you.”

DiCaterina said the government stimulus checks didn’t have much of an impact because 70-80 percent of the people coming for help are undocumented immigrants and didn’t receive a check.

The situation is similar in Chelsea, Mass., which was the epicenter of need in the pandemic’s early days. Captain Isael Gonzalez of the Chelsea/East Boston Corps Community Center said the large undocumented population in his area received no government help.

That made the corps food pantry, which is open three days a week, even more crucial. The pantry served more than 4,500 families and 46,000 individuals a week in February.

“In the past few months, it’s been the highest numbers we’ve seen,” Gonzalez said. “There was already food insecurity in the city even before the pandemic, but when the pandemic hit it became worse and more obvious.

“We stayed open during the pandemic and never closed. We became a very key agency in the community to fight against food insecurity.”

Gonzalez said people are returning to work in some cases, but the jobs are in the low-income bracket. Rents and the overall cost of living remain high. Food is still a major need. Donations from local businesses and foundations helped The Salvation Army provide 56,000 lunches for children last month.

Members of the Ohio National Guard help with food distribution in Lima, Ohio.


Pastoring in uncertain times

The Cleveland, Ohio, West Park Corps is trying to do its part by offering fresh produce to 300-350 people once a month to help with food insecurity. The corps is partnering with the Greater Cleveland Food Bank and will provide the produce from through October.

Major Amy Portillo said the corps also offers a drive-thru pantry three times a week.

“We’re definitely seeing a need,” she said. “Things have improved a little bit since people are starting to get their stimulus checks, but we have seen a significant increase in our services.”

In the early days of the pandemic, cars lined up for several blocks along Lorain Avenue in Cleveland to get food, but Portillo said some people are getting back to work and the stimulus checks have gotten larger.

“What we’ve noticed is that people still definitely appreciate the days we have the fresh produce,” she said.

All of the officers agreed that being a pastor during COVID has been interesting and challenging.

“It’s hard when you’re used to seeing people face to face and then all of a sudden you can’t,” Portillo said. “That’s been a huge challenge. However, we’ve seen members of the corps who have really stepped up to the plate during all of this and have been faithful and have come alongside us. That has been reassuring and extremely supportive.”

DiCaterina said he has developed a closer relationship with the people who come in for help.

“Right now, it’s one on one,” he said. “We know their names. We know where they live. We know about their families. Pastoral work, I would say, has been extended.”

Many ask for prayer and how to deal with the loneliness and seclusion from their families. DiCaterina is a good one to ask, as he and his entire family suffered from COVID last March bur recovered. Some employees and volunteers also had COVID and were hospitalized.

“I don’t think anyone was ready for this experience,” he says. “We’re learning the process. We never expected to have a year like we did.”

Gonzalez said many people have come to know The Salvation Army through the pandemic.

“Being in The Salvation Army, it puts us in the right position to counsel people and just give hope to people,” Gonzalez said. “Many people we know have lost loved ones to COVID or lost jobs. Some folks lost their jobs forever. It puts us in a position that we are there to give them hope.”

by Robert Mitchell

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