Food $en$e volunteers carry on during pandemic

All over Central New York, Episcopal Churches continue ministries responding to food insecurity. Here’s how one small parish managed to cooperate to offer an essential program in the midst of a pandemic. 

By Jim Miller, Food $en$e Co-Chair, St. Mark the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Syracuse

Well into our sixth year of St. Mark’s successful CNY Food Bank’s Food $en$e ministry, we were confronted with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Food $en$e program at St. Mark’s Church has grown slowly over the years by word-of-mouth, by fliers handed out in nearby businesses, and through our Facebook page, new website, and community calendars. This steady growth culminated into what was to be our record distribution on Wednesday, March 25th—ten days after most of our country shut down due to the pandemic along with the suspension of our in-person worship services and all programs (except food-related ones).

Food $en$e, a monthly food buying co-op for anyone who wants to stretch their grocery dollars, is one the Food Bank of Central New York’s longest running programs. Anyone can take advantage of this budget-friendly program, which offers a monthly box of 12-15 staple grocery items at a discounted price as well as additional “special” items that may be ordered separately. Orders must be paid for when placed and St. Mark is one of only three sites in the city of Syracuse for ordering and pick-up.

This program relies solely on parish volunteers as does our Bread Ministry, which also takes place during the Food $en$e delivery. However, most of our stalwart volunteers are older and/or considered vulnerable to COVID-19. But orders had been placed and paid for in February and early March, well before the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was fully known. The truck was coming and would need to be unloaded, and orders sorted into packages for the people to then pick up.

The week leading up to the distribution, our son, Ryan, became adamant that my wife, Kitty, and I—two chairs of the program, were not to be involved. Nor would any of our vulnerable volunteers and those with health issues. Ryan is a genetic counselor working for a large pharmaceutical firm as a liaison with doctors. Ryan’s wife, Megan, is the director of physical medicine and rehabilitation services at a local hospital and was also well aware of the severity of the threat.

But Barry and Marilyn Guinn, who chair the program with us, were still in Florida, and we had few alternatives in our parish to pull this off. Still, the office had been inundated with calls and emails from anxious customers, concerned about being able to pick up their much-needed food. Canceling was not an option.

Two young volunteers step in to help sort March Food $en$e orders in order that St. Mark’s regular volunteers susceptible to the COVID-19 virus could remain safe at home.

So, Ryan created a plan. He would run the distribution with some friends and asked his good friend, Tim O’Donnell, and his sister-in-law, Erin Greenwood, to help. Erin, a speech therapist in the Baldwinsville School District, enlisted her two daughters, aged ten and thirteen.

Cheryl and Gary Neddo, who run our Bread Ministry, came a day early and bagged 60 packages of breads, rolls and cookies to be handed out for free. They knew that this was likely to be the last opportunity for a while, so while the bread is usually offered for a 25-cent donation, it was to be free this day. The funds raised from the bread normally go to support St. Mark’s Green Cafe and monthly Thursday evening dinners, also now on hiatus.

When the truck arrived, Ryan and crew unloaded the truck, most wearing gloves and masks. Two St. Mark parishioners experienced in the distribution process, Leslie Hunt and David Richmond, had arrived to help, as did the ACR volunteer coordinator and assistant.

The two youngest volunteers had lot of pent-up energy ready to be released and not only did they love the experience, they want to come back and do it again! And their mom was happy to have a useful focus for the energy they would normally have expended at Irish dancing classes.

Once the food was unloaded and organized into the “units” and “specials,” Ryan then sent everyone away, leaving only him and Phil, our sexton, to distribute each order one at a time, with customers remaining in their cars. Phil and Ryan would get the receipt from the customer, check it off from a master list, gather the order and bring it out to the customer.

Thanks to great planning, Phil and Ryan said everything ran smoothly and they were done in record time! Our volunteers, including Kitty and I,  as well as our customers, were relieved and grateful to Phil, Ryan and the “set-up crew.” God continues to work in mysterious and powerful ways—especially during a pandemic!

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