Food pantries confront ‘an overwhelming, heart-breaking situation’
By Heather Wright
Having difficulty finding flour? Toilet paper? Many of us are learning to do without a few things each week. For others, though, the problem isn’t so much in the finding, as in the affording. And the numbers of people facing food insecurity are climbing.
According to the Capital Area Food Bank (CAFB), some 120,000 Prince George’s County residents were already grappling with food insecurity before the pandemic hit this area in mid-March. Since then, demand for food in the county has doubled. Local food banks, many in partnership with CAFB, are trying to address the growing need, but against considerable odds.
The food pantry at Hyattsville’s St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church temporarily closed the second week of March because of the pandemic. The pantry realized quickly that they needed an alternative plan because “… the vast number of our volunteers are senior citizens in their 70s and 80s,” said Doug Jones, a pantry volunteer.
Recognizing the increasing need for their services, and in the face of a disrupted supply chain, St. Mark’s food pantry re-opened April 14 with younger volunteers (some of whom have themselves been furloughed) and a new drive-through model in place.
This food pantry, like other pantries that are still in operation, no longer allows clients to do their own shopping. Volunteers now load two standardized bags of groceries into the trunk. “We do not want clients outside their cars,” said Jones. The standardized bags include assorted foods and toiletries. Specialized items, like baby formula, are available upon request. If clients do walk up, the bag exchange is done from tape marks placed 6 feet apart.
St. Mark’s food pantry is open every Tuesday from 10 a.m. to noon. During an average pre-pandemic week, according to Jones, the pantry would serve approximately 80 households. On April 21, April 28 and May 5, the pantry served 120, 172, and 207 households, respectively. However, the pantry had to close down at 11:00 a.m. on May 5 because of a supply shortage and the “complete chaos” on Adelphi Road from a mile-plus backup of cars in line for a pop-up food pantry held at Northwestern High School.
Metropolitan Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church, on Riggs Road, hosts a food pantry that is open every other Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon. According to Idalette John, the church’s community services director, the pantry was serving close to 150 households each distribution week, and their numbers were on the rise even prior to the pandemic. Since mid-March, their numbers have consistently increased, reaching 250 on April 22 and just over 400 on May 6.
Some local pantries have had to shut down during the pandemic. St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church/Iglesia Episcopal San Mateo’s food pantry, one of nine Help by Phone pantries in the county, remains temporarily closed, according to Karen Cassedy, senior warden at St. Matthew’s/San Mateo. “Our volunteers are all older, and this is just too much right now,” she said. The Lutheran Mission Society (LMS) Hyattsville Compassion Center on East-West Highway is currently closed, too, as LMS Compassion Place has consolidated their services to four food distribution centers in Annapolis, Cambridge, Essex and Baltimore.
Supply chain problems
As the demand increases, food pantries, like all of us, are finding their supply chains disrupted. Jones said that St. Mark’s food pantry continues to receive a considerable amount of their groceries via CAFB deliveries. CAFB provisions have not increased at the same rate as the demand St. Mark’s currently faces. And with Sunday worship services suspended, the church-sponsored pantry is no longer receiving a consistent supply of supplementary donations from parishioners.
Food pantries have had to get creative to replenish their supplies. In order to help St. Mark’s pantry’s reopen and meet the increasing need, the Rev. Roberto Cortés secured additional bulk supplies like dried beans, rice and flour from wholesale distributors like Megamart. And the University of Maryland donated 10 cases, or about 1,000 rolls, of toilet paper on April 27. “Since students aren’t there, I asked if [the university] had something stored away that we could [have],” said Jones.
St. Mark’s pantry office, on Adelphi Road, is now open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays for drop-offs. Non-perishable goods, cash donations and gift cards are welcome. “We have a critical need,” Jones stressed. “It’s an overwhelming, heart-breaking situation that everyone is going through.”
The Metropolitan SDA pantry is also scouring alternative sources for provisions. John said that she and her assistant used to shop at local grocery stores to supplement the goods that CAFB provided to the Metropolitan SDA pantry. Since grocery stores are experiencing their own shortages and are limiting purchases, they’re now shopping at the Restaurant Depot in Capitol Heights.
Jones said that her church has really stepped up financial support to address the increased demand at the pantry. “They’ve basically said, ‘Whatever it takes.’”
During the May 5 food distribution, Jones asserted, “Poverty is real here in Hyattsville. People don’t realize it. It’s hidden. And it’s been compounded by this pandemic.”
Beyond Food Pantries
Many other local organizations that address food insecurity have had to temporarily close or adapt their services to comply with state orders. Community Place Café, which serves meals to homeless and low-income individuals and families out of Hyattsville’s First United Methodist Church, temporarily closed on March 31 because of safety concerns, according to Café and Food Coordinator Barbara Smith.
St. Jerome Church’s Thursday Café has pivoted from a dine-in model to offering takeout and has partnered with two local food providers. Mary Morton, co-coordinator of the Thursday Café, said, “We have supplemented our meals with empanadas from Cafe Azul and Jamaican meat patties from Shortcake Bakery, and our guests love them.”
Meals on Wheels College Park (MOWCP), continues to deliver meals to homebound seniors, with strict sanitation and social distancing practices in place. According to Lynn Topp, MOWCP board member, cook and long-time volunteer, they went from serving 75 clients to 150 and are receiving calls from new clients each week.
The PG Plaza Day Center, a daytime shelter which operates out of University Christian Church, remains open from 2 to 4 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The center is offering takeout meals and limited services.
The City of Hyattsville is working to address increased food insecurity, as well. On April 16, the city distributed 87 grocery gift cards, each for $100, to residents experiencing hardship during the pandemic. (Hollingsworth and Ward 2 Councilmembers Danny Schaible and Robert Croslin allocated money from their discretionary funds to purchase the gift cards.) Mayor Candace Hollingsworth called the initiative a “stress test” for determining and responding to need in the community.
If you would like to support others experiencing food insecurity or are in need yourself, visit the Capital Area Food Bank website (https://www.capitalareafoodbank.org/). To access services through Help by Phone, call 301.699.9009.