With the pandemic well past the one-year mark, an archdiocesan agency has just completed its 10th food giveaway, thanks to a dedicated team of staff and volunteers.

Last Saturday, dozens of Nutritional Development Services (NDS) employees and supporters gathered at Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia to distribute more than 430 federally funded meal boxes. Sponsored by the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) Farmers to Family program, the packages contained fresh produce, meats and dairy products.

Event workers also handed out an additional 650 USDA student meal boxes, comprised of seven breakfasts and lunches for children and youth aged 2 to 18 years who are attending school virtually. Bags of fresh apples, also funded by the USDA, capped each meal set.

Since October 2020, NDS has coordinated the weekend distributions to bolster day-to-day responses to COVID-related food insecurity, handing out over 5,000 meal boxes and 56,000 student meal kits to date.

According to the national nonprofit Feeding America, 42 million people may face hunger due to the pandemic, despite several rounds of stimulus checks, and food banks have seen a 55% increase in client traffic over the past several months.

At the same time, some nonprofits have reported declines in volunteer forces due to a combination of “compassion fatigue” and fears of contracting the highly contagious coronavirus.

But NDS has managed to avert that downturn, said executive director Lizanne Hagedorn.

The agency’s corps of volunteers include several “who follow us to multiple locations” throughout the five-county archdiocesan area, she said.

Alex Cross, a seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, loads a food box into a client car during an April 24 distribution sponsored by archdiocesan Nutritional Development Services and hosted by Holy Innocents Parish in Philadelphia. (Gina Christian)

“When the people need help, I say, ‘I’m happy to help,'” said Miguel Angelo Romero, a volunteer from the Bensalem-based Fatima Catholic Outreach Center, who has regularly assisted at NDS distributions there,  including one held the Saturday prior.

Through word of mouth and email communications, “it seems like each week there are new people here,” Hagedorn noted.

A March 27 giveaway, also staged at Holy Innocents, drew volunteers from as far as West Chester University, as well as former NDS employees and their families.

All hands are needed to unload trucks, direct traffic and pack the food boxes into waiting cars and handcarts at the events, where recipients – who at times have lined city blocks — have remained steady in numbers during recent weeks.

Located in the city’s Juniata Park neighborhood, Holy Innocents Parish has attracted “a lot of walk-ups” to the four NDS distributions it has so far hosted.

“There’s still a need,” said pastor Father Thomas Higgins, who has greeted clients individually at the events.

While about 25% of the food box recipients on April 24 were parishioners, some 75% “were from out of the parish,” he said.

For Alex Cross, a seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, the food distributions have been a way “to really integrate the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.”

Having assisted at two previous giveaways, Cross said he noticed a number of clients “coming and picking up food for neighbors and friends who don’t have cars,” a gesture he found heartening.

“Even those who are out here seeking help are also seeing how they can help others, which is really moving,” said Cross.

From a pastoral perspective, he added, “it’s really key to (have) a sustainable group of volunteers who are willing to come back, and it seems NDS has very much been able to develop that.”

The outdoor format of the events was “perfect” for those “who really want to help during the pandemic” in “ways that (are) safe,” he said.

Above all, Cross added, “this is a great opportunity to go out and feed the hungry as Christ commanded.”