ROME – As the holidays draw nearer and those feeling the brunt of the fallout from coronavirus lockdowns struggle to put food on the table, the Diocese of Rome and its parish Caritas offices have organized two food drives to support those in need.
On Saturday, Dec. 19, volunteers with local Caritas departments will be stationed in supermarkets throughout the city for a food collection to support families that have reached out for help amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 21,000 households in Italy have requested assistance in purchasing food and basic necessities.
As part of the food collection campaign, parishes are asked to coordinate with local shopkeepers in their neighborhoods in a bid to both raise awareness that people in the area are in need, and to support local businesses which have been impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.
On Dec. 21, a separate drive will take place called the “Collection of charity” to conclude the Advent season. In addition to local shops, supermarkets and other commercial businesses, this collection will also directly involve parishioners, and will take place during Masses and other parish events.
According to a Caritas report titled “Poverty in Rome: A Point of View,” which details poverty and changes of income rates throughout the Italian capital, even before COVID-19 hit, the number of those experiencing poverty in the city was increasing.
Data from the Ministry of Economy and Finance showed that as of 2019, roughly 9.4 percent of Romans were already struggling financially to the point that they were unable to cope with sudden expenses and paying the monthly bills was a struggle.
The number of those living in precarious housing had also risen to nearly seven percent of the city’s population, two percent higher than the national figure of five percent, and 80 percent of Romans declared an annual income of somewhere between 15-35,000 euros ($18,345-$42,805).
Once the coronavirus broke out in Italy and the country implemented its strict national lockdown, there was a surge in requests for assistance as people suddenly found themselves out of work.
According to the report, the biggest initial request was for food. To help meet demand, Caritas organized 137 distribution centers and 13 food storage facilities where donations were stored.
Some 21,160 families called into diocesan listening centers, 35 percent of whom did so for the first time, adding themselves to the roughly 40,600 who already go to receive support at parish listening centers throughout the city.
There was also a huge jump in the number of people requesting help with basic necessities as a result of COVID-19.
In May 2019, Caritas’s main distribution center in Rome delivered basic necessities to some 23,400 people, whereas in May 2020, that number shot to 80,340, an increase of roughly 345 percent in one year. This number went up again in the summer months.
Caritas also operated soup kitchens, which did delivery during the spring lockdown, for needy families. From March through September, they distributed 238,246 meals, compared to 185,062 during the same period in 2019.
Parishes also offered limited financial help to families who couldn’t afford their bills. Each parish was allowed to accept just five requests per month for one-time contributions, with a maximum of 500 euro ($611) for the bills related to housing. From April until September, some 489 of these contributions were given amounting to 175,021 euro ($214,049).
Food vouchers were also provided by the Rome Foundation, which donated one million euros ($1.2 million) in vouchers to both Caritas and diocesan food centers.
Assistance has also been provided through the “Jesus Divine Worker Fund,” established by Pope Francis in June to support families struggling because of coronavirus lockdowns, many of whom are seeking help for the first time.
When he established the fund, Pope Francis gave an initial contribution of one million euros from his charities, with both the Lazio region and the City of Rome each pitching in 500,000 for a total of 2 million euros ($2.4 million).
Rules stipulate that each family unit requesting help can receive support for 3-5 months, with a maximum of 600 euros a month. Applications are presented to local territorial offices in collaboration with parishes.
As of Oct. 31, the fund recorded that 107 cases had been opened and a sum of 114,092 euro ($139,521) had already been paid out.
According to Caritas, the reason for organizing the holiday food collections is to not only fill parish food pantries with enough supplies to get through the holidays, but to create “a starting point of encouragement” throughout parish communities, at every age and status.
To participate in the food collections, individuals or groups are asked to go through their parish offices to coordinate with local shops. Whatever is gathered will be taken by volunteers either to parish food pantries or to Caritas distribution centers.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen