Clients line up at the food bank at St. Paul’s Commons on a chilly day in March. In recent days the program, run by St. Athanasius’ Church, has seen an increase in traffic and a decrease in supplies as the COVID-19 quarantine continues. Photos: Luis Garibay

Since COVID-19, people are showing up earlier and the line has doubled on Friday mornings at the St. Athanasius’ food pantry at St. Paul’s Commons in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. “But the regional food bank has decreased the amount of food they are giving us,” said the Rev. Canon Frank Alton, rector and provost. “The worst thing is, they’ve cut back on staples like rice and beans, which are the most useful for low-income families because it’s something they can make in abundance. It’s nutritious and culturally appropriate.”

As the coronavirus forces more Angelenos into unemployment, many feeding ministries in the diocese say they are increasingly facing two challenging realities — a growing need and a dwindling food supply.

“Food banks across the country are struggling to meet the demand for emergency food relief as that demand increases and the supply chain is breaking down,” says Tim Alderson, executive director of Seeds of Hope, the diocesan food justice ministry.

Seeds of Hope currently distributes 125,000 servings per week of farm-fresh fruits and vegetables at 12 sites around Los Angeles County, representing “a fourfold increase in the amount of food and a threefold decrease in the number of distribution sites since the COVID-19 outbreak began,” Alderson said. “With record unemployment, there are a lot more people needing food assistance now, but there are huge challenges in getting it to them safely.”

New food pantries, expanded services

As the demand grows, new food pantries have popped up in the diocese and existing ministries have expanded their services.

Our Saviour Center has operated a food pantry in El Monte for 35 years. On April 17 it opened a second site a few miles away, at the Mountain View Family Center.

The new drive-through site, created in partnership with Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis’s office and community officials, served 732 households its first day, according to Diane Williams, food pantry coordinator.

“Then we did almost 600 households the second day and now we’re running at about 350 to 400 for the last couple weeks,” she said. But almost as quickly, she said, food supplies dwindled, and she was forced to reduce its operation from three to two days weekly.

“There was not enough food,” she told The Episcopal News. “At this point, we are just doing this Mondays and Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.” The Our Saviour Center food pantry is open Tuesdays and Thursdays, she said.

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank supplies food for both sites. “We had a good supply in the warehouse before this started, but those amounts are dwindling, and we can’t get as much food as quickly,” Williams said. Similarly, the West Valley Food Pantry at Prince of Peace Episcopal Church in Woodland Hills has also expanded to an additional site, the Family Rescue Center, a few miles away. Collectively, the two sites feed several thousand people weekly, according to executive director and chief operating officer Debbie Decker.

“We offer them food to get them through for a few days. Most of the people in line have never asked for anything,” she said. “They don’t even know how food pantries work. Sometimes kids are in the back of the car. We ask if they need diapers. There are so many young families.”

The virus has forced the ministry to shift from in-person to drive-through operations and has served guests from as far away as Santa Ana and Riverside. “We don’t care where they’re from,” said Decker, who said each family is allowed one visit per month. Homeless persons can visit weekly.

“I talked to one lady a few weeks ago who said she and her husband were laid off a week apart,” said Decker. “She worked for a restaurant and he worked for a small shipping company as a truck driver. They have four children. They had no savings. She was hoping unemployment would kick in or she’d receive a stimulus check, because she couldn’t pay her rent. She just said, ‘I don’t know how to do this.’ She was more worried about what happens when this is over — will they even be able to get their jobs back.”

The food pantry supplements its L.A. Regional Food Bank distribution with fresh produce, dairy items and occasionally meat from local grocery stores, Decker said. The ministry is also funded by grants and gifts from local foundations, businesses and individuals, allowing Decker to purchase as much as $20,000 in groceries weekly, she said.

When the COVID-19 crisis forced layoffs at both St. Stephen’s Church and its Delaney-Wright Fine Arts Preschool in Hollywood, the staff quickly created a community food pantry.

Now both school and church staff volunteer at the drive-through pantry, which serves about 75 families weekly on Wednesdays, according to the Rev. Canon Jaime Edwards-Acton, rector.

Because St. Stephen’s is a food hub for Seeds of Hope, “a lot of their donated produce is on our property,” he said. “When all this started, we just said, can you add one more site? And they did.”

Masked and gloved volunteers load pre-packaged grocery bags into trunks of cars for families of the school, the church’s Jubilee ministries and its partner church, St. Barnabas (“St. Be’s”), Eagle Rock. “We ask people to RSVP because we need to have a sense of how many will show up. Nobody gets out. We say hi through the window, we get to see the kids, and that’s it.”

At St. James’ in-the-City, Los Angeles, a Thursday morning food pantry typically gives away 125 bags of groceries, mostly to the working poor and to the homeless, according to Cathy Helm, coordinator.

“Many who come have jobs, but they don’t have enough money to buy food,” according to Helm, who reports a recent tenfold increase in inquiries about the pantry. The congregation’s Friday evening soup kitchen feeds about 100 guests weekly and is planning to expand to Tuesdays, according to Margaret Ecker, soup kitchen coordinator.

Safe distancing and staggered volunteer shifts have helped the soup kitchen maintain meals of pasta, soup, fresh salads, sides, sandwiches, beverages and desserts, she said. Now, the cooking happens in stages—with no more than two people in the kitchen at any given time.

Soup kitchen guests “used to start lining up around 3:30 p.m.,” Ecker said. “Now there is no more start and finish. We just give out the food until it’s gone, to avoid people congregating. Now there are two distribution points, at the front of the church and at the parking lot.”

The numbers of guests attending a Saturday morning breakfast and mobile shower program at the church have tripled since COVID-19, she said.

COVID casualties

For many, the COVID-19 safety precautions — although necessary — have also diminished a sense of community.

At St. Athanasius, “before, we used to wait for volunteers to come together. We’d have a prayer, and everyone would take a station and invite people inside,” Alton said. “Now, it’s whenever we have enough volunteers and they can get set up to start serving. And everyone stays outside.”

Decker, at Prince of Peace, agreed. “People are masked,” she said. “You can’t see their faces. It feels dehumanizing. I have a hard time with that. One of the things we always wanted to be was a place of grace and welcome and respect and kindness. We never wanted to add to anyone’s burden. They are already humiliated and humbled; it’s a very uncomfortable place to be. We have always been a place to be kind. But now, processing people through a drive-through lane, you don’t get to know anybody. There is no personal contact.”

Similarly, the El Monte drive-through sites have created a “one-size-fits-all” now,” Williams said. “We pre-bag as much as we can, and everybody gets the same. We’re limiting our contact as much as possible. We can get people through faster. It’s a speeded-up process.”

Plexiglass shields are used for walk-up interactions with the homeless. “We give them homeless kits and blankets and diapers. They get an additional box of food once a month if they’re over 60, but we try to limit contact. We do as much as we can for now.”

At St James’, however, the virus has helped to create a new kind of community, among both active volunteers and those who because of the restrictions can no longer assist.

“We have a weekly conference call now,” Ecker told The Episcopal News. “Just seeing each other and hearing each other’s voices — I can’t believe how much fun it is. They just want to share how people are doing, including our guests. They just want to make sure everyone’s doing okay. It is such sweet evidence of the relationships that St. James has made possible, us with each other, and with people on the street.”