The COVID-19 pandemic can shut down the rest of the world, local nonprofit leaders said Tuesday, but it can’t stop them from feeding those in need.
“A quarantine stopping us doesn’t stop people from being hungry,” said Katrina Dorsey, who heads the Anniston Soup Bowl. “So if we can figure out a way to serve people who are hungry, we’ll figure out that way.”
The Anniston Soup Bowl is one of several nonprofit programs designed to provide free or affordable meals. In the midst of the pandemic, volunteers with those programs now have to change their procedures when handling food and delivering it to clients.
Because the virus has closed schools and businesses, leaving locals without jobs, new feeding initiatives have sprung up in the area.
“Hunger is a serious matter,” Dorsey said. “It might be a job, but it’s a service to people who are in need.”
‘As long as we can’
One might have thought a quarantine would have caused fewer people to come to the Soup Bowl, Dorsey said, but it didn’t.
Since she started taking extra precautions March 17, she said, the Soup Bowl has given out an average of 90 meals a day.
On Tuesday, volunteers had set up a table at the building’s entrance and were handing out meals in to-go boxes to those in a short line. People carrying to-go boxes could be seen walking on nearby streets.
She said some of the usual volunteers decided to stay home for their safety, which she understands. She said she asked members of her church to help and less than 10 people work there at a time.
“As long as we can serve and keep our people safe, we’ll do that,” said Dorsey.
Dorsey said she never worried about shutting the kitchen’s doors. Instead, she said, she followed the Alabama Department of Public Health’s guidelines for restaurants each day.
Joseph Brown, who walked away carrying a box and two bottles of milk, said he didn’t mind, as he often took his food to-go anyway.
He said he had to wear a mask outside this time because his immune system was compromised.
“I can’t catch nothing,” Brown said, “I’ve been fighting cancer.”
Julie Edwards, who heads the Meals on Wheels program of Interfaith Ministries, said her group is “still rolling,” but they’ve had to change the way they deliver the food.
Edwards said Meals on Wheels delivers food on weekdays to those in Anniston, Oxford and Weaver who are homebound and unable to grocery shop or cook for themselves. She said most of the program’s clients are elderly, and about half receive the meals for free or at a reduced price.
Typically, Edwards said, volunteer drivers wait in the dietary unit of Stringfellow Memorial Hospital. She said the meals are usually served in thermal trays and the drivers stop and socialize with clients when making deliveries
Now, Edwards said, staff at Stringfellow bring the meals out to the drivers’ cars. She said the drivers deliver meals in styrofoam to-go boxes and just hand the boxes to clients through the door or leave them in coolers on their doorsteps.
She said it’s taken volunteers a few days to get used to the new routine, but they’ve managed.
Edwards said most of the drivers are senior citizens, and many who are worried about catching the virus have stepped away from the program. Luckily, she said, they’ve got a waiting list of people who want to volunteer.
“As of right now, we’re doing OK. We’ve got enough drivers,” Edwards said.
‘You never know who needs help’
The Rev. James Reed, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Anniston, said Tuesday his church was one of five partnering with Anniston City Schools to provide lunches to students in need during spring break.
“We’re trying to relieve the burden on some of the parents,” Reed said. “Some of the parents, though the quarantine is going on, still have to work or have other financial challenges.”
Reed said his church planned to give out 300 lunches between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m. At around 10:45 a.m., Reed said, the church had already given away about 75 lunches. If they had any leftovers, he said, volunteers would go into nearby neighborhoods and hand them out there.
Reed, who stood near a table holding dozens of meals in brown bags, said those who needed the meals could pull up to the curb, grab a bag and head home while having minimal contact with volunteers.
Church member Kandy Bothwell, who was inside preparing hot dogs with a handful of other volunteers, said it felt good to help her community.
“You never know who needs help,” she said.
Kenyatta Lee, who works with the Boys and Girls Clubs of East Central Alabama, pulled up to the church in the organization’s van. He said he’d gotten 10 lunches before then and was there to pick up 20 more.
Lee said the program had previously closed because of the virus, so he was taking those lunches to the kids involved. He said it helped them and it kept the clubs’ staff connected with them while they were away.
“Normally, it’s spring break, and they’d be at the club,” Lee said.
For Reed, he said, giving out the lunches is a way for him to “practice what he preaches” every Sunday at church.
“The church’s real mission is to serve,” Reed said. “We just want to display servanthood. We want to be givers. We want to make sure we practice the principles that we believe, that Jesus practiced as well.”
‘Families break bread together’
Edwards said deliveries have gotten a little bit lonelier for Meals On Wheels volunteers.
April LaFollette, Interfaith Ministries executive director, said volunteers used to gather for a few minutes at Stringfellow before starting their deliveries. Edwards said the volunteers would frequently visit with clients during deliveries. In many cases, she said, the volunteers have developed a rapport with the clients.
“It’s eliminating that kind of support, that camaraderie you get as a volunteer and that fellowship that you have with the people in need we’re delivering to,” LaFollette said.
Dorsey, who was sitting in the Soup Bowl’s empty dining room, said she also misses the “fellowship” she normally sees when guests are inside. But, Dorsey said, she still considers those who come for food to be family. She said she hopes they’ll be able to gather again, soon.
“Families break bread together and fellowship together and talk, and that’s the part we’re missing right now” Dorsey said. “But we’re serving an immediate need right now.”