The Food Procurement Program of St. Norbert Parish in Paoli is growing rapidly as parishioners look to assist other people during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March, the program helped feed 20 families in need but is now able to take care of 60 families just two months later, thanks to a core of loyal volunteers on hand.

Prior to the crisis the program had about 12 active members, mostly senior citizens. They would gather around midday every Wednesday for their service. Then on March 12, when a shortage of food and supplies hit grocery stores, the program was not able to operate because it had nowhere to pick up food for distribution to the needy.

By March 25 the parish was able to get its food program going again by developing a relationship with Philabundance as well as connections with local supermarkets. Through monetary donations from parishioners, recipients have received $25 gift certificates to their local supermarkets. Volunteers continue to join the effort each week and dedicate many hours of their time.

“We’ve had about 30 volunteers come forward,” said Lisa Nisikawa, a parishioner of St. Norbert. “The response has been great.”

The program performs its service every Thursday and Friday. On Thursday morning, a driver with an SUV or van goes to the Acme and Redners Warehouse Markets in Phoenixville, picks up nonperishable food items and brings them to St. Norbert. Volunteers at the church then load up the boxes, about 40 pounds each, and store them in the church narthex.

(Dan McCarty)

On Friday, another volunteer drives from Paoli to the Philabundance warehouse near the South Philadelphia sports complex, picks up 500 to 1,000 pounds of food and returns it to St. Norbert.

Upon arriving, there is frequently a waiting period before the food can be loaded into the vehicle because of tight security protocols in place. That wait combined with the commuting time can take up to three hours.

After the food is brought to the church, families in need may come to pick up their food packages.

“I contacted St. Norbert to help because I know how needs had increased because of the pandemic,” said parishioner Jean Kane. “I’m so proud of St. Norbert for taking such a huge role in addressing this crisis in the community.”

It is the program’s responsibility to keep all volunteers safe so that they do not risk their own health while trying to make a difference. Social distance rules are in effect, and no more than 10 people may enter the church building at one time. Everyone must wear masks and gloves.

Under Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home order, people have found it difficult to know where or how to help those in the surrounding area. St. Norbert’s Food Procurement Program is an opportunity for high school and college students who need to fulfill community service hours as a prerequisite for graduation.

Will Connolly, a junior at Conestoga High School, must perform a total of 20 service hours per year, though that requirement has decreased to 15 due to the virus. Initially, he found it a bit scary to be going out for the first time in many weeks but he thinks this is a great way to contribute.

“It’s nice being able to help out with something that matters, especially now,” said Connolly.

In addition to providing people with groceries, St. Norbert has made an impact in helping nearby restaurants maintain business that is also critical right now. The program Food It Forward buys gift cards so that folks can help these food businesses and enjoy a meal for themselves at the same time.

“It’s such a great combination,” said Nisikawa.

St. Norbert’s began its Food Procurement Program eight years ago. Ed Grady, the volunteer and activities coordinator for the parish, said he heard the Lord telling him, “Let them procure the food.” In that way Grady believed he could make the ministry work and it has been successful ever since.

“It was like my brain saw the diagram on a blackboard, how to set up the ministry,” said Grady. “Since then, it has worked.”

The Food Procurement Program would not happen without everybody working together. It is in uncertain times like these that St. Norbert Parish wants to make sure such an organization is moving forward in full operation and that efforts to serve the community will not cease.

“We are moving more food than we ever have,” said Nisikawa. “Everyone feels strongly about it. It’s been very humbling for a lot of people.”

(Dan McCarty)