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Pandemic Food Deliveries Bring People Together


Published in the issue.

When the first serious reports of Covid-19 hit New York City in early March, I immediately thought of the vulnerable older “seniors” that my organization, Health Advocates for Older People, serves. I would no longer be able to see our program participants at our events, attend services at Heavenly Rest and see my “church friends,” or enjoy the camaraderie that my office provides to me. The many programs that we offer, that keep senior New Yorkers healthy and “aging in place” in their apartments, were suspended on March 22 when the city “closed down.” What were we to do?  What was I to do?

I have been privileged to have a strong spiritual ministry at Heavenly Rest, and I believe that my productive thoughts come from the Lord who guides me. During the third week of March the thought that came to me was to try to move our exercise classes online. I began reaching out to our talented instructors, and within a week Health Advocates had the beginnings of a terrific schedule of Zoom classes. I, meanwhile, moved in with my daughter in Brooklyn, where I was safe and sheltered and fed and healthy. I was with a loving family feeling very fortunate and blessed.

And then the reality hit: the frail elder citizens that we serve were quarantined in their apartments, many without family, much less computers and the “internet savvy” they’d need to order food from Fresh Direct or Amazon. They often had no additional resources or contacts to balance out the loss of the usual stores and neighbors who helped them navigate their lives. And they were frightened and lonely. Immediately invigorated, Health Advocates started a phone call program to check in on them. Our staff, working remotely from CT and eastern Queens, divided our list of 1,250 members and began calling them. Others, including a fellow member of Heavenly Rest, called many people and emailed us the results of their calls. Most of the seniors to whom we spoke were healthy thus far, but they were isolated, socially bereft, and… many were without food. In many cases, the numbers that the city provided didn’t answer or there were no call backs in response to messages left.  And no one knew how long it would last, with news of morgue trucks and devastating losses hitting the city daily. The streets were bare, and so were their cupboards and refrigerators. And they were so frightened.

They say that Providence strikes when necessary, that God will provide spiritual care and protection in times of crisis. Out of the blue, I got a call from a recent donor who represented a trust that had contributed an amount of money meant specifically to enable frail seniors to have their groceries delivered free of charge.  She was struck by the lines and the food shortages and the sense of hysteria regarding food that she was seeing in her neighborhood and thought of the many older adults who would not be able to handle the crowds and shortages in the supermarkets.  She proposed that we go ahead and just use the money to pay for the groceries as well as delivery.  She would do the shopping and Health Advocates would cover the costs out of the funds we had received. We found people to make the calls for the grocery lists. And then Providence struck again. When the donor requested permission from the other trustees to change of the use of funds from delivery only to include the cost of food, they decided to double the original grant—and so we were set to make it happen without the fear of running out of money. A list of needy people had already been created for the delivery program and we agreed to include parishioners from the Episcopal Church of the Holy Trinity and St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church in the call list.

Our members who were in need were delighted to know that they could get a weekly delivery. And what happened next was truly wonderful. While our volunteers or staff members took their grocery orders over the phone, our grocery delivery recipients had extended contact with them. We were not just delivering food, we were delivering the grace of companionship and caring and conversation. We were not just getting them an anonymous box of staples but, instead, “low fat” or “low salt” or special spices or vegetarian foods or special diets for their medical conditions. They were not a name and a number any longer.

We were soon searching for fig preserves…

We were soon searching for fig preserves that reminded one recipient of growing up on a farm in South Carolina, or an obscure type of dried bean that another ate as a child in Cuba.  And, with every request for such an item, came a discussion of recipes, or a childhood story, or a memory of what they ate when they served in WW2. Special containers of soup were obtained for the sight impaired who could not read the cans; we found the organic carrot juice that they were craving. Suddenly, I was no longer worrying about “my” lost programs, I was worrying about serving those people that had been in the programs. They were no longer participants in our programs, we were participants in their lives, their kitchens, and their life stories.

What these people had gone through as a shared history was notable: They had grown up hearing of the losses in their family from the 1918 pandemic—this was not a mention in a history book to them, but their grandparent or their aunt who had died; they had lived through the Great Depression with food lines; they had known ration cards in WW2; and many had lived through fascist regimes and immigrated to this country. What food brought back to them was comfort and memory, and a sense of belonging to their roots. And as we provided that food, we became part of their sense of family.

As Christians, we know that we should feed the poor and help those in need. As we serve one another, we serve Christ. Did God present these unexpected funds to create a sense of purpose when many felt so lost? When we decided to provide the funding for the food apart from the service of shopping and delivering it, were we being asked not to judge another’s need? When we decided not to limit our budget only to “essential” food, were we acknowledging that in our world, charity too often involves judgment and a stinginess in our assessment of what someone else really needs? Matthew 25:34 “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat” then becomes Isaiah 58:10 “your darkness will become as bright as the noonday sun.”

Providing service directly, as opposed to organizing service as program, has enabled me to think more clearly about the daily challenges our members face. Can you eat if you don’t have Fixodent for your dentures? Can you cook if the gas has been turned off for non-payment? And when the earth seems to be falling apart, can the ritual of your afternoon cup of Bustelo espresso and a blueberry muffin do as much to serve your soul as your medicine does to heal your body’s illnesses?

So many people were touched by this program: the volunteers who took orders; the seniors, including a number who were in their 90s, who were ordering food they needed but weren’t strong enough to carry home themselves; the benefactor who also shopped for the groceries; the volunteers and store delivery staff who delivered the food every week. All of us were blessed and brought closer to each other. The grocery initiative was an inclusive effort that brought strangers together, helped develop new understanding of people they didn’t know. It has been a real spiritual event.