ARLINGTON, Virginia — The World Central Kitchen truck left its workspace at Nationals Park in Washington with 3,300 containers of veggies and lasagna and headed to Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington.
In the parish hall-turned-food pantry, volunteers spent the morning of May 21 loading the food into brown paper bags. By lunchtime, the church perimeter was lined with masked individuals biding their time on socially distanced stickers. By the end of the afternoon, every reheatable meal had found a hungry home.
Our Lady, Queen of Peace has given food to the needy every week for years, but it used to look a lot different, said Sally Diaz-Wells, parish social justice and outreach minister.
“We would do it with a lot of hospitality,” she told the Arlington Catholic Herald, the diocesan newspaper. “They would walk into our hall, all 200 plus families, and hang out, have breakfast. We always had coffee, tea and water available to them. We always had some kind of sweet breads. We had a nursery; (pregnancy assistance ministry) Project Gabriel,” she said.
Then, the pandemic hit. The recipients could no longer linger in the parish hall but had to wait apart from one another outside. The number of families needing food began to climb. At the most recent Wednesday distribution, they gave away 667 bags. Only 10 volunteers could work together indoors wearing masks and gloves.
“It’s a big curve, but a curve we’ve met with prayer and faith,” said Diaz-Wells. “It’s been a blessing to have really dedicated volunteers. I would be in a foxhole with them any day, which is how we feel sometimes.”
Parishioners, neighbors, nearby Protestant churches, Bread for Our Brothers, Catholic Charities St. Lucy Project, and others donated food and money. After hearing of their plight, the charitable Rales Foundation gave a $25,000 donation. “The money has been a godsend,” said Diaz-Wells.
The volunteers often distribute more than food. Sometimes it’s information shouted out in English and Spanish, such as where to get tested for COVID-19, how to get help paying rent or why people should fill out the U.S. census. The week before, volunteers put a mask into every bag of food. Many people have donated homemade masks including the parish Days for Girls ministry, which usually sews period pads for women in developing countries. “We have had angels,” said Diaz-Wells.
The parish community was excited when World Central Kitchen offered to donate meals. The organization, founded by chef Jose Andres in 2010, is known for making meals for those impacted by natural disasters, such as Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
According to its website, since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic World Central Kitchen has provided 250,000 fresh meals every day to people in different cities, including the Washington metropolitan area.
“They’re an incredible organization,” said Spiritan Father Timothy J. Hickey, pastor. “It’s really about hope and dignity. It gave us another opportunity at feeding people who are hungry and that’s what this is all about.”
“(Andres is) doing something for our community that is just a nice thing to do because the (recipients), they’re not the people that are able to go out and buy from restaurants most of the time,” said Diaz-Wells. “For them to have a nice meal that they didn’t have to cook I think is such a blessing.”
Maraist is a staff writer at the Arlington Catholic Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Arlington.