When Chris Whalen received an e-mail in mid-March that St. Anne Parish’s Brown Bag Lunch Program in Lancaster would be ceasing operations due to the pandemic, her heart sank.
Whalen is a 15-year volunteer with the ministry, which was been providing free lunches to people in the Lancaster community five days a week for more than 30 years.
Handing out lunches through the Dutch door adjacent to the parish’s kitchen for so many years, she’d come to know many of the recipients. And she knew how vital the ministry had become to the people it served.
Whalen was crushed to learn that it would be coming to a halt – even for two weeks, the initial timeframe that many businesses, schools and organizations anticipated with newfound knowledge of COVID-19’s spread.
“My heart sank. I thought, ‘We’re in a crisis and we’re shutting down the lunch program. How are we going to help people?’” Whalen said. “In this environment of crisis, the people we serve need comfort and need to know they can count on us.”
Within 24 hours, the program’s leadership team connected in a flurry of e-mails, sharing ideas of how they might adapt lunch prep and distribution to meet safety protocols. With the support of their pastor, Father Tri Luong, they forged ahead.
A streamlined process developed, which included face masks, continuous disinfection of work stations, social distancing of volunteers, use of the parish library to pre-stage nonperishable items and distribution of lunches from the spacious front porch instead of the kitchen door.
But then came other concerns. How would the program replenish volunteers who understandably stepped away due to health concerns? With limits on bread purchases, how would they secure 20 loaves per day? Would partner grocery stores and restaurants continue to donate items? Would financial contributions dwindle?
“So many factors were up against us, but things just came together,” Whalen said. I look back on it now, and I know it was God’s hands pushing us in the right direction.”
“We’d hear about restaurants trying to get rid of inventory. Some of them, just because of the crisis, offered to give prepared food because they wanted to help. The local Order of Malta volunteers one day a month, and their members picked up extra bread when they went shopping. We found new volunteers in high school students and in people who had time because they weren’t going in to work,” she said.
“God provided for us. “We were able to introduce the program to a lot more people who were able to help, and now we have a whole new group of people who are serving others in their time of need,” she added.
St. Anne’s Brown Bag Lunch Program began more than 30 years ago, as a response to the people coming to the rectory door seeking something to eat. With an Amtrak station a block away, St. Anne’s was a frequent first-stop to arrivals looking for assistance.
The program has grown from 12 lunches per week to more than 3,000 per month. Lunches include a sandwich of lunchmeat and cheese or peanut butter and jelly; fresh fruit such as bananas or apple slices; a “salty” such as chips, pretzels or crackers; a dessert and a carton of milk. Additional items can include yogurt or granola bars, depending on grocery store donations.
The program is staffed by regularly-scheduled volunteers and supported by in-kind donations and area food ministries and grocery stores. Food is provided by the Lancaster Food Hub, the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and Blessings of Hope.
The Brown Bag Lunch Program has been a recipient of grants awarded through the Diocese’s annual Matthew 25 Collection. Grants distributed from the collection benefit parish-sponsored ministries that provide food, clothing and shelter to those in need. This year, the Brown Bag Lunch Program received a $9,000 grant, enabling it to allow up to four lunches per person per day, to meet the increased need of recipients requesting them for family members at home.
Blessings of Hope assists St. Anne’s with the donations of fruit. Blessings of Hope provides warehousing for large amounts of food donated from corporations for manageable distribution to programs. The organization shares food with regional food banks and food ministries nearby, including those supported by parishes in the Diocese.
“Many of our current volunteers, and regular volunteers during normal conditions, are parishioners, non-parishioners, and members of other faith denominations who are eager to participate in this much needed charitable program,” said parishioner Carol Lichty.
“We give a ‘shout out’ of thanks to the many parishioners and non-parishioners who have made cash donations to this special ministry. There are so many who have been so generous,” she said. She also expressed gratitude to the many businesses, organizations and ministries whose food donations enable the Brown Bag Lunch Program to operate.”
“St. Anne Parish could not continue this program without the many, many volunteers who are giving of their time, and those who provide financial support in this time of need,” Lichty remarked.
In 15 years as a volunteer, Whalen has gotten to know many of the folks who stop by to pick up their lunch every day.
“There are some people who come who were here the first day I started working,” she said. “Some people only come for a short time and you never see them again, which can be a good thing, because hopefully it means they are back on their feet.”
“People come for food, but they come for so much more than that. They know us, and want to talk. It’s social, it’s emotional. It’s structured to their day,” she remarked.
As businesses closed their doors in the face of the pandemic and more people were faced with food insecurity, St. Anne’s saw an increase in the number of lunch recipients.
“We saw a lot of people that we never saw before over the past months. We decided we could feed them with the food being provided, and that however many lunches they needed, we would give them,” Whalen said. “Some people were coming for lunches for their families. Some would come one day for 10 lunches and then we wouldn’t see them again for three days because they were trying to limit how often they’d go out. Others would tell you that they lost their job, or that their place of employment wasn’t able to open.”
When Whalen began as a volunteer with the program, she did so because she was looking to give back. But that’s just half of what it really turned out to be.
“You think you’re giving back, but you receive so much more than you could have given. You see that in hindsight,” she said.
“It’s humbling, and it allows you to be grateful for what you have,” she said of volunteering with the program. “One thing I’ve seen all these years is that the people who come to the door take care of each other. They have so little, but they’re still caring and generous toward one another. I see God’s generosity in the surprise provisions, in the people we serve and the kind words of appreciation they say, and in the team of people that you work with. I feel as if I get to experience God here.”
(Photos courtesy of Carol Lichty, St. Anne Parish.)
By Jen Reed, The Catholic Witness