A staff member from archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services (NDS) distributes food packages during a Feb. 6 giveaway at Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia, one of several such events the agency has hosted in response to rising COVID-related food insecurity. (Gina Christian)

Hundreds of families lined the streets surrounding a Philadelphia parish last weekend to receive urgently needed food assistance.

“We are seeing more and more of a need, not less,” said dietician Jean Falk of archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services (NDS). “Our numbers (of clients) are just increasing.”

Falk joined dozens of coworkers and volunteers for a Feb. 6 food distribution at Holy Innocents Parish in the city’s Juniata Park section. The drive-through and walk-up event, one of several organized by the agency in recent months, provided some 1,000 boxes of produce, meat and dairy products funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “Farmers to Families” program.

In addition, organizers handed out approximately 800 student meal boxes, each containing seven breakfasts and lunches per child, plus milk.

The amount was double the supply from the previous distribution, at which the agency had “run out,” said Falk.

Bags of produce, along with some 400 casseroles purchased with a grant from the Connelly Foundation, rounded out the giveaway.

Several streets surrounding Holy Innocents’ parish campus, which spans an entire city block, were jammed with client cars, with pedestrians streaming along the sidewalks.

Holy Innocents pastor Father Thomas Higgins, who welcomed families as they arrived, said “the need (for assistance) continues.”

Families waited in lines stretching around the campus of Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia during a Feb. 6 food distribution sponsored by archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services. (Gina Christian)

While Juniata Park “used to be one of those areas where people were very well off, things have changed,” he said.

Philadelphia’s high poverty rate, now hovering at 24.5%, has been exacerbated by the pandemic. According to Feeding America, some 50 million U.S. residents are at risk for COVID-related food insecurity – and the Feb. 6 event only underscored that reality, said Father Higgins.

“Whether you’re in Juniata or Oxford Circle or whatever part of the city, there are plenty of people in need of food,” he said. “We’re just happy to be able to sponsor this with NDS.”

The distribution was also “a moment for evangelization,” he noted.

In greeting clients and handing out parish bulletins, Father Higgins said he had “met people from West Philadelphia, from different parts of the archdiocese, and a lot of non-Catholics.”

“A method of evangelization is helping people in need, and then saying, ‘The church is also here to invite you to connect with God and be a part of the parish,’” he said.

For Catholics, social services and spiritual ministries are intertwined, “as they should be,” said Father Higgins.

“Jesus cared for the hungry and the sick and all in need, and he preached the Word,” he said. “He’s trying to teach us to do the same things. How do you tell people that God loves them if you’re not there to give them a meal and a warm set of clothing?”

Annabella, a client whose family had lost employment due to COVID, described the event as “a miracle” amid months of hardship.

“This is a blessing,” she said. “I am very grateful.”