A convenience store chain known for its hoagies has teamed up with archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS) to feed men experiencing homelessness during the coronavirus pandemic.

On April 23, Wawa began providing some 700 pre-packaged meals per week to St. John’s Hospice, a CSS outreach that offers residential services for more than 250 men transitioning from homelessness to independent living.

The Center City facility, a beneficiary of the Catholic Charities Appeal, also provides case management, on-site nursing, daily showers and a mail room for more than 1,300 men.

The Wawa meals are part of the Step Up to the Plate Collaborative, which has supplied meals by local caterers to address growing hunger among Philadelphia’s vulnerable populations in the wake of the coronavirus.

Prior to the pandemic, the city had already been grappling with ongoing food insecurity, which rose 22% from 2012 to 2017.

St. John’s daily lunch service – now in a grab-and-go format to comply with social distancing requirements — has increased from nearly 220 to 320, said Martin Farrell, the hospice’s director of development and community relations.

Farrell attributed the steep uptick to the recent closure of a nearby shelter overwhelmed by the coronavirus crisis.

In addition, business shutdowns aimed at containing the virus’ spread have sparked rampant unemployment over the past five weeks, with Pennsylvania now counting 1.5 million claims representing 23% of the state’s workforce.

Clients of St. John’s Hospice, an archdiocesan Catholic Social Services outreach to men experiencing homelessness, line up to receive free lunches donated to the outreach by Wawa as part of efforts to counter coronavirus-related food insecurity. (Photo courtesy of Martin Farrell)

Farrell said the Wawa lunches, which will be delivered every Thursday and Friday for the next seven weeks, are helping St. John’s to “stay consistent” in serving clients.

“Our people have been happy that we’ve continued to be open during these times,” said Farrell. “They know they have a place to eat.”

Wawa president and CEO Chris Gheysens said that the donation honored the company’s “roots in Philadelphia,” while “(reinforcing its) commitment to the community.”

To cover the rest of the week’s meals, the Step Up to the Plate initiative is also supporting hard-hit local caterers by sourcing additional lunches through Tootsie’s Hot and Cold Buffet at Reading Terminal Market.

Farrell described the blend of Wawa’s meals and those purchased by Step Up to the Plate as a “cool crossover” that has benefited all involved.

At the same, he said, St. John’s is urgently seeking sustained donations to meet the constant and growing demand for assistance.

“The financial need is still very much there,” said Farrell. “In any given week we could use $50,000 to meet our operating costs.”

The hospice is also looking for supplies of new and used clothing, toiletries and bagged lunches, he said.

Clients and staff are navigating the coronavirus pandemic moment by moment, he said.

“We’re too much in the thick of what’s going on to really think about the transition about normalcy,” said Farrell. “But being in the thick of it and having it happen gives us some road map for how to deal with challenges in the future.”

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To donate to St. John’s Hospice, visit http://saintjohnshospice.org/donate-3/.