Forced to adapt, food pantries plan to ‘remain open regardless’
BY TREVOR SKEEN
Three years after food pantries confronted the pandemic — and turned to drive-through systems, increased safety protocols or temporary closures — they now face the challenge of a society that is returning to normal for some but not for others.
Food pantry workers, volunteers and coordinators in the Hyattsville area explained that much of the demand triggered by the pandemic remains today, and the numbers back their claim.
According to the Capital Area Food Bank’s (CAFB) 2023 Hunger Report, over the last year, 32% of people in the Washington area did not always know where their next meal would come from. With over 1.2 million people affected in the DMV alone, there are a variety of reasons food insecurity remains prevalent while other parts of society rebound from the pandemic, including “near-record levels of inflation … and the end of many novel or enhanced federal benefits programs.”
The City of Hyattsville, in conjunction with Prince George’s County and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, conducted food distributions each Saturday from November to December 2020, according to a December 2020 Life & Times article. The city ended additional food distributions, held every Tuesday in Driskell Park, in summer of 2022, before starting a monthly produce service.
Although the latest Hunger Report showed that just 54% of food insecure individuals in the region have accessed assistance over the past 12 months, numerous churches, nonprofits and other organizations were available to those who did seek help.
St. Mark’s Catholic Church
In Hyattsville, one such place is St. Mark’s Catholic Church on Adelphi Road. Doug Jones, who has served as the St. Mark’s food pantry coordinator for nine years, provided a variety of statistics from before, during and after the pandemic, in addition to explaining how their distribution systems changed.
Before COVID-19 spread, clients could come once a month to enter the church, receive two pre-packed bags with a variety of items and select from additional options at a miscellaneous table. Next, from March 2020 to 2022, St. Mark’s transitioned to a drive-through pantry to practice social distancing and maintain safety. Under this system, households were also allowed to receive food more often — on a weekly basis.
Once the pandemic improved, organizers shifted to a grocery store model, in which families returned to coming inside and visiting once a month. This time, however, they were able to browse, select and take items themselves rather than collecting the pre-packed bags. St. Mark’s is still using that system now, and Jones said it has a variety of upsides.
“The family may pick and choose what they would like because everyone has different tastes — and needs,” Jones said.
Policy changes could have influenced the number of households coming to St. Mark’s, Jones said, in addition to outside factors like poverty and inflation rates. However, he explained that the amount of food distributed fell in 2022 and rose again this year, even though the grocery store model was in place throughout that period.
“The amount of donations has significantly decreased this year, while the demand for food has dramatically increased,” Jones said. “We’re doing between 600 and 700 families per month versus the 300 to 400 [we did] in 2022.”
Despite the increased demand at St. Mark’s, CAFB surveys conducted in February 2022 and May 2023 found similar levels of food insecurity in the Washington area. Nonetheless, both datasets show the impact of the pandemic on food insecurity, minority communities and overall inequality in the DMV.
Jones said the church served an average of 282 to 306 families in the two years preceding the pandemic. However, during the height of COVID-19 from March 2020 to February 2022, that number jumped to 1,523 households per month.
According to the CAFB 2023 Hunger Report, Black and Hispanic demographics in the DMV are disproportionately affected by food insecurity — representing 44% and 27% of the population facing it, respectively — and St. Mark’s data tells the same story.
“Ninety-nine percent of the families we serve are from a minority background, of which 90% are of Hispanic heritage,” Jones said.
The majority of St. Mark’s donations come from CAFB, Jones explained, although parishioners, fundraisers and other sources like the City of Hyattsville and University of Maryland have also contributed. While those involved with the pantry have tried “everything possible” to get more support, they are committed to staying open and operational.
“Saint Teresa of Calcutta said that ‘if you can’t feed 100 people, feed one’ — so we’re going to remain open regardless,” Jones said.
First Baptist Church
First Baptist Church on 42nd Avenue operates another food pantry in Hyattsville from 2 to 4 p.m. on the third Sunday of every month. Volunteers at this pantry also considered applying for distributions from CAFB — but church member Diane Sawtelle said it was a little too complicated for their small operation to handle. In particular, she explained that proposing a monthly budget is difficult when parishioners donate the majority of their products.
Another member, Joyce Page, said the church only has a regular attendance of about 40 people, but they manage to supply between 30 and 35 people per month with food. The food pantry offers single and double bags depending on family size, although Page said it can be hard to estimate the number of people, size of their households and general level of demand on a monthly basis.
“Normally, we’ll sit here and give out all those bags,” Page said about halfway through the pantry. “Just now, we had to go stuff some more because we still had people waiting — and we try to make sure everybody leaves with something.”
Prior to the pandemic, the food pantry at First Baptist ran a grocery store model, where clients could go downstairs to the storage area, browse available items and make selections based on group size.
However, after closing during the pandemic and reopening in the summer of 2021, they switched to their current system of bagging items donated by parishioners, collecting relevant information — like names, family size and place of residence — and exchanging food at the door.
Page also said that First Baptist gets a lot of regular monthly clients, including some from Friendship Arms Apartments, which is a community for elderly and disabled populations up the street. However, they get new visitors from farther away too — last month, someone drove for an hour each way to pick up food, she noted.
Going into the holiday season, Page said they hope to collect turkeys, stuffing mixes and other Thanksgiving staples, along with winter attire. But like other food pantry volunteers, she said they will wait to see what happens.
“We have to adapt based on how much food we have at the time,” Page said. “Sometimes we don’t have as much as others, but we try.”
Meals on Wheels College Park
Another organization, Meals on Wheels of College Park (MOWCP), specifically focuses on feeding the elderly population. Intake Coordinator Maria Newsom said volunteers at the nonprofit deliver meals to homebound members of the senior community. Their service features a light breakfast, lunch and dinner available during weekdays, for $5 a day.
Despite being based in College Park, Newsom said MOWCP serves many other areas, including Hyattsville, Greenbelt, Beltsville and parts of Riverdale Park. Newsom added that, given their limited resources and volunteers, they are sometimes forced to turn down requests for assistance from those outside their normal service area.
But unlike St. Mark’s, First Baptist and other organizations during the pandemic, MOWCP kept its food delivery model in place. They even added new volunteers who were furloughed, terminated or otherwise unable to work amid the pandemic. However, Newsom said they are currently looking for more volunteers.
“A lot of people have gone back to work, started back at school [or] have moved away, so we’re always looking for volunteers in our kitchen and for delivery services,” she said.
According to a May 2020 Life & Times article, MOWCP served about 75 clients before the pandemic. Newsom said that number increased to about 200 people during the peak, and it is currently around 160.
She added that, despite facing challenges, the organization has recruited quality volunteers to address the needs of their clients.
“It’s been difficult, but we manage to attract very fine people,” Newsom said. “The people we have are just phenomenal.”
A more comprehensive list of food pantry resources in Hyattsville and Prince George’s County can be found on the Prince George’s Food Equity Council website, which maps locations, provides information, and is updated weekly.