As the region braces for a second wave of COVID, an archdiocesan agency is working overtime  — and looking for help — to meet rising demand for food assistance.

“It has wreaked havoc, but we’re adapting to that havoc,” said Lizanne Hagedorn, executive director of Nutritional Development Services (NDS). “And there’s no end in sight for the next couple of months.”

For the past five decades, NDS has been countering hunger in the five-county archdiocesan area by operating federally funded child nutrition programs and a privately supported network of food cupboards.

But with the pandemic projected to leave some 50 million in the U.S. food insecure (17 million of them children), NDS staff are now deploying every available resource in the fight against hunger.

“Never before have we operated every single one of our programs at the same time,” said Erinn J. Hill, the local NDS administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national school lunch program.

NDS Community Food Program administrator Denise Hopkins admitted she’s “very worried about the fact that we’re going to have a lot more phone calls from people needing food.”

At present, she said, “we’re already probably delivering 35,000 pounds of food per month, if not more” to close to 50 sites.

More than ever, she said, NDS is counting on donations to its annual holiday food drive, an online campaign in effect through Jan. 8. Using the YouGiveGoods platform, participants can purchase a variety of non-perishable items for delivery to NDS.

The agency’s annual Alternative Christmas Card program, which retails custom-designed cards by local artist Patty Smith, also raises much-needed funds, said Hopkins.

Amid COVID restrictions, schools and parishes have managed to host successful food collections, Hopkins said, noting particularly generous efforts by St. Pio Catholic Regional School and St. Christopher School, both in Philadelphia, and Cardinal O’Hara High School in Springfield.

As a result of these and other collections, NDS was able to provide approximately 200 Thanksgiving dinners to area families, said Hopkins.

Providing balanced nutrition is key to NDS’s outreach, she added.

Just as the federally funded school meals align with nutrition guidelines, “we consciously give out healthy items” that are low in sodium and sugars, Hopkins said.

Food insecurity significantly correlates with high blood pressure and diabetes, which particularly impact senior and low-income populations.

NDS’s community food program also has a “meal-based focus,” said Hopkins.

“I don’t want to give out a box of spaghetti without tomato sauce, or a box of pancake mix without the syrup,” she said. “We want them to have the full meal.”

Getting both the federally funded meals and the donated items to food pantries can be a challenge due to COVID, said NDS staff.

“We’re getting calls that schools are going virtual in a couple of days, for weeks or perhaps indefinitely,” said Hill. “So they’re closing down classrooms, and we need to change our meal volume and delivery instantly.”

Fortunately, NDS ensures that “school meal staff are highly trained and know what they need to do,” said Hill, while the agency has a team that handles all logistics from purchasing to warehousing and delivery.

At the food cupboards, volunteers – a majority of them senior citizens – continue to put in long hours.

“Some of them sound overworked,” Hopkins said. “But you have to give them credit; they’re still doing this with everything going on.”

Individuals and organizations are “coming out of the woodwork” to ask how they can partner with NDS in starting new food cupboards, said Hagedorn, citing a recent request by the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia to set up several sites.

At one NDS community distribution, a dispatcher for the trucking firm delivering supplies personally donated $400 to support the agency, she said.

In addition to alleviating food insecurity, NDS’s work offers a sense of stability and community during an uncertain time, said Hill.

“Clients are always so glowing when they talk about the sites,” she said. “They love that the staff are in the community to provide these emergency meals, and they’re sending me pictures. Parents are happy and excited they have this new resource for their kids.”

That feedback also nourishes NDS staff, she added.

“I love to hear those stories,” said Hill. “I can see the action.”

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For more information on Nutritional Development Services, including a list of area food banks and donation options, visit the agency’s website.