Operation Rice Bowl

By Lou Baldwin

Special to The CS&T

Chronic hunger certainly exists in many third world countries, but it is also present in our own back yard. Both areas are addressed by Operation Rice Bowl, the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) program that combines prayer, sacrifice and alms-giving and has been an integral part of the Lenten season in the Philadelphia Archdiocese since 1976.

Traditionally this has meant at times during Lent preparing very simple meals and depositing the difference from what one normally would spend for dinner into the container provided, and turning this in after Easter with three quarters of the fund collected going to alleviate hunger in other countries and the remainder staying in the Archdiocese for local needs.

These local needs were emphasized when Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre visited the food cupboard at St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Chester on Feb. 23 to bless this year’s rice bowls and participate in a program that highlighted its crucial work oversees and here at home.

“This program is really a wonderful way to connect our prayer life, our fasting life, how we learn and how we give in a very real way,” said Maureen McCullough, regional director for CRS.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese, which collected $250,000 last year through Rice Bowl, she noted is among the largest contributors to the program, which helps fund food assistance in the more than 100 countries served by CRS.

As is the custom, materials supplied by Operation Rice Bowl focus especially on five countries. This year they are Haiti, Senegal, Indonesia, Kenya and Honduras, but the location of the ceremony in Chester – one of the poorest communities in Pennsylvania – highlighted the local needs that also benefit from Operation Rice Bowl.

“We’ve noticed a great uptick in needs, but we welcome this,” said Msgr. Joseph McLoone, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel. “The Church in Chester is alive and well, when you see all the wonderful works we have.”

Sister Mary Ellen Broderick, I.H.M., a coordinator of the parish food cupboard, spoke of the critical role it plays in Chester. Last year in the five months ending in January, 1,978 people received food. This year during the same five months, 2,555 were served. Most noticeable was the increased number of elderly coming to the food cupboard. “We have seen an increase of 81 percent,” Sister Broderick said.

The poor have many faces, and Sister Broderick spoke of a few. Danetta and her husband are raising four children of their own and four children of her sisters. Jeffrey, who is disabled, is raising two young daughters alone because his wife left. Alvin and his wife work four jobs with modest pay between them and struggle to pay tuition for two children in Catholic high school because it is important to them.

“Most people, especially the elderly, almost feel ashamed to come here, but we try to make them welcome,” said Sister Broderick, who first encountered dire hunger when she was missioned to Peru.

The portion of the Rice Bowl funds that remain in Philadelphia is given to archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services which uses it to supplement aid to food programs that serve the poor, for example, the St. Katharine Drexel food cupboard.

“In absolute terms you can’t measure the benefits of Nutritional Development Services because it does so much with so little resources,” said Joseph J. Sweeney Jr., archdiocesan Secretary for Catholic Human Services. “It really is the Church in action. They are five percent of our budget, but sometimes I think they are ninety-five percent in terms of touching people.”

“The money we get from Rice Bowl is critically important,” said Lorraine Knight, NDS director. “That 25 percent is stored very carefully and we use it to purchase food for cupboards around the diocese when they run out. The food goes very quickly.”

Locally the Rice Bowl program is headed by Anne Ayella who sees both the international and the local need because she is both an assistant director with NDS and the diocesan director for CRS.

“We can all learn a little bit about the importance Rice Bowl plays in our own community,” she said. “There is a connection between Rice Bowl and folks who have a food emergency.”

Lou Baldwin is a member of St. Leo Parish and a freelance writer.