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At Catholic Charities food pantry, months of long lines with no end in sight

Sister Romana Uzodimma, a Sister of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, places onions into a man's bag at Catholic Charities' Spanish Catholic Center parking lot in Washington July 15, 2020, where he is picking up free food supplies. Since the coronavirus pandemic wreaked havoc on the U.S. economy beginning in March, the Spanish Center food program has grown from 60 recipients a week to 600, Catholic Charities' officials said. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When the coronavirus pandemic first hit the Washington area in mid-March, shuttering many local restaurants and businesses, the lines at a weekly food pantry sponsored by the Spanish Catholic Center immediately jumped from about 60 people to hundreds.

And now, four months into this time of job loss, sickness and social distancing, this previously small pantry -- part of Catholic Charities in the Washington Archdiocese and previously led by a handful of senior volunteers -- is equipped with a large team of helpers to regularly serve meals and give groceries to about 600 people each week.

These workers say the line for the food pantry often starts forming well before dawn and is not showing any signs of letting up.

On July 15, about a half hour before the pantry's "doors" opened, the line was already snaking around several city blocks, with socially distanced gaps, while individuals or families -- with children in tow or in strollers -- found spots of shade in the sidewalk on a morning that was already oppressively hot and humid. The line shuffled along quietly, with people wearing masks and carrying reusable bags or backpacks for the food.

The food pantry, which switched from being indoors to outside to accommodate the crowds, is located in the parking lot of Sacred Heart School in Washington's Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights neighborhood, which is home to a large Latino immigrant community. It runs on a first-come, first-served basis every Wednesday.

In the elementary school lot parking lot, adjacent to the Spanish Catholic Center, chalk markings denote the necessary 6-foot gaps for the line that a volunteer reminds patrons to observe, "por favor," and music plays from a loudspeaker giving the pantry the feel of a farmer's market.

The first stop is a table with free face masks or hand sanitizer and reusable grocery bags, followed by a stand with coolers full of packed lunches. Then, at the tables in front of a rental truck with the food supply, volunteers fill each person's bag with fresh produce and other items, and on this day, frozen chicken.

At the end of the food line are stacks of extra donations such as free diapers. Volunteers hand them out in packages until the supply runs out and then they are repeatedly asked: "Panales?" (diapers in Spanish) and they shake their heads no and apologize.

Another table at the end of the food line has donated items such as art supplies for kids. And last, but certainly not least, is a table to sign up for help from the Spanish Catholic Center with immigration or employment support, which is a major part of the center's mission along with its medical and dental center.

A Catholic Charities' worker places a boxed meal in a woman's cart at the Spanish Catholic Center parking lot in Washington July 15, 2020, where she is picking up free food supplies. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Julieta Machado-Pecanins, the center's program manager for social services, walked up and down the line handing out water July 15, talking with people, as she often does, and asking them how they are doing. She told Catholic News Service that by her estimates, 90% of those in line are still out of work because many had hospitality jobs that haven't come back.

Their situation is compounded because those without legal documentation also didn't receive government stimulus checks and some can't receive unemployment benefits.

Sinia and Elena Ruiz, who both lost their jobs at a dry cleaners that closed when the pandemic started, came to the food pantry July 15 for basic supplies and also had hoped to also get diapers for Elena's 10-day-old baby, who was wearing a shirt that said: "Mama's little miracle."

They just missed the diapers, which volunteers say are among the first things to run out, but they got a lot of produce, which "helps a lot," Sinia said.

Sinia, who lives with her sister and her newborn baby, has a 10-year-old and a 20-month-old. She said she is trying to be strong for her kids right now, but it's hard.

"We keep hope that all this will end," she said of the pandemic and the resulting loss of work. But she also sees a bit of a silver lining in it all, saying the crisis has reminded her, and hopefully others, about the importance of caring for people. "We need each other, and we support each other," she said from the edge of the food pantry's parking lot.

Eduardo Barrios, an 18-year-old who also lost his job working in an office and was on a repeat visit to the food pantry for his family, did not elaborate on the challenges he's faced in recent weeks but just said: "The time has been kind of hard."

He said his dad almost lost his job, and his mom is unable to work. Staying in close quarters with his household of seven during this time also has been difficult. As someone who likes hanging out with friends, he said that at the beginning of this he was bored at home, but now "I'm just focusing on my family."

The food pantry helps, he said, because money has been tight and grocery costs have gone up.

"Coming here is helping us a lot," he said.

A woman waits in line at Catholic Charities' Spanish Catholic Center parking lot in Washington July 15, 2020, to pick up free food supplies. (CNS photo/Chaz Muth)

Just being able to provide for basic needs is something the volunteers and Catholic Charities staff said they felt good about and honored to be a part of.

Tom Roddy, who oversees some of Catholic Charities' food distribution programs, has seen his share of lines for free food. Since the pandemic began, he has helped coordinate new food distribution sites in various locations around the Washington Archdiocese.

At some places where they are providing a drive-through for groceries and meals, the numbers were initially high, but they have started to drop, especially in suburban areas where jobs have begun coming back.

Here in the Mount Pleasant/Columbia Heights neighborhood, he has noticed, the numbers haven't decreased.

As Machado-Pecanins puts it: "The need is too big." The volunteers, many wearing Catholic Charities T-shirts with the slogan "Say Yes," reflecting the agency's aim to help all who come seeking assistance, sense the food they are providing each week is just one drop in the bucket to meet the overwhelming needs of the many who come to their "door" trying to make ends meet while still not working.

But the weekly free food is making a difference. It is something.

Bridget Maley, program manager at the center, said she is nervous many of its clients are "running out of their savings" and she is not sure how they will be able to keep their apartments.

She also recognizes that not having enough food to eat is a crisis many are experiencing right now. "Food insecurity is a real thing, represented by the amount of people lining up all the time. ... The people who are coming here have nowhere else to go," she said.

Sister Romana Uzodimma, a Sister of the Handmaids of the Holy Child Jesus, who is program manager for Catholic Charities Health Care Network in Archdiocese of Washington, has been one of the weekly helpers at the food pantry this spring and summer. She said that while she hands out the food, she prays the clients will find "sustenance and blessing."

"This has brought us together," she said, of the pandemic and its economic impact. "We feel each other's pain."

To donate to Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington for its COVID-19 response, visit The Archdiocese of Washington has launched a Parish Pantry Support Project to assist the 67 local parishes operating food pantries, A survey of those pantries found that they have doubled their outreach during the coronavirus pandemic and economic downturn. 

(Chaz Muth contributed to this report.)