The COVID-19 pandemic is changing outreach across The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Newark, and the 16-year-old food ministry at Holy Trinity in West Orange is no exception.
The parish’s food pantry used to supply 150 families with food and staples each week. Now 500 families are being helped twice a week. And, while its Christine’s Kitchen used to serve between 80 and 100 guests, the soup kitchen is now giving away 125 pre-made sandwich meals every Saturday. The ministry is also delivering food to elderly people.
Most people seeking food are from West Orange, but the Rev. Miguel Hernandez, Holy Trinity’s Priest-in-Charge, said anyone who arrives looking for food receives it.
“We always give something when somebody comes so they don’t leave empty-handed,” he said.
Even on the rare occasions when the soup kitchen has extra produce and sandwiches, the leftovers are distributed to church members who don’t have transportation or are homebound. “Nothing goes to waste,” he said.
The first Saturday that Christine’s Kitchen offered the bagged sandwich meal, there were about 60 left over. So, Fr. Hernandez and some volunteers drove into Newark and found African-Methodist Episcopal Church members giving away food on Martin Luther King Boulevard. He offered the sandwiches to the group.
“By the time we made the U-turn to head back to West Orange, all the sandwiches were gone,” he said. “That’s how the bad the need is. There is a huge need for food.”
Added to that need is the fact that grocery prices are getting expensive. In April, grocery prices showed their largest increase in nearly 50 years, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported. The increase was led by rising prices for meat and eggs.
Responding to the need all adds up. “Our food pantry has been depleted a couple of times,” Fr. Hernandez said.
The ministry has been “sounding the alarm,” in his words, and the community has responded
“We are being really blessed that the news came out and some people are chipping in, bringing some food, sending a small check, whatever, but it’s working,” he said.
Monetary donations go a long way. Fr. Hernandez said the ministry buys food from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey where it can stretch its dollars because of lower prices at the food bank and the ability to buy in bulk.
Volunteers are showing up, too, including police department members who helped pick up food and bag it for the pantry.
Area churches are helping. The Church of the Holy Innocents, West Orange, recently delivered nine boxes of food. Others have made financial donations, according to Fr. Hernandez.
However, some dependable sources of donations have been stymied. For instance, Washington Elementary School, across the street from the church, typically runs an annual food drive for the ministry. On delivery day the students form a chain between the school and the church to deliver the food. With students sheltering at home, those drives are not happening.
“Now it’s the reverse,” Fr. Hernandez said. The food pantry is giving food to some of those students and their families.
He said that the ministry’s biggest unknown is finding out about all area people who need food.
“From time to time people ask us if we can give them an extra bag because somebody’s at home and they’re sick,” he said. “We rely on people’s honesty, so we give them an extra bag.”
Having run the ministry for 16 years and now having had to change their processes to safely respond to the economic impact of the pandemic, Holy Trinity has learned a few things. If other congregations are wondering how they might respond in their communities, Fr. Hernandez has some advice, and an offer.
“Find out if there is a food need in your community and figure out how to provide some kind of ministry to people,” he said. “And, if they need help, they can contact us. We have the volunteers who have been running this for a lot of years. They know how to run it and organize the community.”
Donations by check should be made out to Holy Trinity Episcopal Church with "Food Pantry / Soup Kitchen" in the memo line, and mailed to Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, 315 Main Street, West Orange, NJ 07052.