(Left to right) Donna Fanelli, Jean Falk and Joseph Briscella of archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services display some of the items the agency distributed to Chester area families Dec. 19 as part of ongoing efforts to counter COVID-related food insecurity. (Photo by Gina Christian)

Some 500 Chester-area families enjoyed healthy holiday meals, thanks to a recent food distribution event organized by archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services (NDS).

The Dec. 19 giveaway drew a steady stream of cars and pedestrians to the parking lot of the Chester Community Charter School, where boxed portions were handed out in a grab-and-go format by NDS staff and volunteers.

For close to five decades, the agency has delivered millions of breakfasts and lunches to area children through federally funded school meal programs, while stocking a large network of community food cupboards.

At the Chester outreach, each client received seven days’ worth of breakfast and lunch per child, plus a family-sized dinner of macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, fresh bread from Bimbo Bakeries USA and salads from Kegel’s Produce in Lancaster.

Amid the pandemic, NDS has been a lifeline for children, families, and individuals in the five-county Philadelphia region, with many accessing the agency’s resources for the first time. Although COVID-19 vaccinations are now in progress, that support will continue to be critical due to the disease’s widespread economic impact, said NDS executive director Lizanne Hagedorn.

“I see some very trying months ahead for people,” she said.

Concerns over slow job and income recovery have left many anticipating “the possibility of financial hardship as far as a year from now,” according to a report issued earlier this month by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.

The food giveaway helped brighten Christmas for struggling families, said NDS purchaser Joseph Briscella.

(Watch a video from the Dec. 19 food distribution hosted by Nutritional Development Services.)

“Every kid wants to see a gift under the tree,” said Briscella, a member of Mother of Divine Grace Parish in Philadelphia. “We can give them this aid, and now maybe they can spend that couple of dollars they would have used for food on a gift for their kid.”

Clients can also rest easy knowing NDS sources high-quality, nutritionally balanced items, said agency dietician Jean Falk.

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“Once, donating food was like ‘clean out your cabinets,’” said Falk, who belongs to St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Springfield. “That’s changed over the years, and people are more aware of food, with higher expectations.”

For example, she said, longtime food pantry staples such as beef stew have been replaced by canned tuna, chicken and salmon “to add a higher protein value” to meals.

“We’re constantly upping the level,” she said.

Briscella admitted that while he focuses on securing the best bottom line for NDS’s food purchases, getting nutritional approval from Falk isn’t always easy.

“I’m on the phone saying I need the best price for a given product, and Jean’s right in back of me looking for the nutritional information sheet,” he said, joking that Falk’s rigor sometimes results in “more work” for him.

Even NDS’s desserts must demonstrate nutritional value for Falk: the cookies distributed at the Dec. 19 event were made with whole-grain flour.

The distribution was good for the soul as well as the body, said Kris Van Hees, one of about 60 volunteers on hand to place food in clients’ cars.

“To be able to put our faith to work is very rewarding,” said Van Hees, a member of St. David Parish in Willow Grove and a candidate in the permanent diaconate program at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

Van Hees said his children, who had participated in a previous NDS distribution, welcomed an additional chance to help.

“They love this and wanted to do it again,” he said. “They get to connect to people, talk to them and see another dimension of our faith.”

The bracing cold and brisk winds were not a deterrent, he added.

“You don’t notice that, because you’re doing something for the Lord, and that makes all the difference,” said Van Hees. “Yes, we could be comfortable at home, but this is so rewarding, and I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

With distributions tentatively scheduled over the next three months, NDS staff and volunteers will have plenty of additional opportunities to help, said Erinn J. Hill, NDS’s administrator for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s national school lunch program.

“The economic impact of the pandemic is going to go on for quite some time,” she said. “The hungry have always been with us, and I think COVID is going to make it more difficult for families for (months). So we’re in it for the long haul.”