Drive-up food line feeds hundreds during pandemic
By Cecilia Padilla
A line of vehicles traversed the parking lot of the St. Francis Center in Riviera Beach, April 22. Staff from Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Palm Beach stood outside of the center ready to distribute bags of food to program clients and local residents in need of food assistance during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
“I’m so grateful that Catholic Charities is doing this,” said Frances Fallana, a resident of Riviera Beach experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19 business closures. “I have a family of four to feed, as well as my 84-year-old neighbor who doesn’t have anyone to care for her. This food will help us get through the week.”
Alex Stevens, associate director of Catholic Charities of Palm Beach, filled the bed of his truck with pre-bagged canned goods and other non-perishables, which were donated from their regular food pantry and the Palm Beach County Food Bank. “There are about two to three meals in each bag,” said Stevens through his protective mask. “The Palm Beach County Food Bank, St. Clare Church and local civic groups have been our major contributors for today. In addition to the regular contribution it makes to our food pantry, the county food bank donated about 1,200 pounds of goods for today’s food line.”
A team of dedicated Catholic Charities of Palm Beach program leaders quickly formed a speedy distribution process that provided each household present with a bag of food. Rocio Lopez, program director for Hunger, Homeless and Outreach, greeted clients with a cheerful welcome behind her mask and gloves. Vinessa Morgan, administrative assistant for Prison Ministry, organized bags and the large palettes of goods from the county food bank. Donna Pearson, program administrator of Parish Social Ministry, and Karen Rojas, executive administrative assistant, replenished the truck with bags. Maria Melo, a case manager for the Disaster Recovery program, stood along the street holding a sign and enthusiastically waved in passersby.
The distribution team carefully followed the Center for Disease Control’s guidelines in place for the pandemic. As each vehicle pulled up, organizers asked the driver to open the trunk of the car and then placed the bag inside. This eliminated contact between staff and clients, and limited exposure between clients as well.
Shelby, a young woman from West Palm Beach, visited the food line on behalf of her parents and siblings. “My hours have been cut back at work, which is really hard because my family relies on part of my salary to live. It’s a blessing to have Catholic Charities available nearby. I’ve come to them before and they always help me through.”
As the day progressed, more drivers stopped by after learning of the food line in the St. Francis of Assisi parish Facebook chat. Victoria Rohn, a mother of twins, was relieved to learn that assistance was being offered. “My neighbors are parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi Church, and they learned through Facebook that this was going on. News travels fast in our community and as neighbors we help each other out.”
Some Riviera Beach residents arrived on foot, bicycle or mobile scooter to the food line. James Johnson, who walked to the St. Francis Center, shared that he is a student working part time at a construction labor service. “I was laid off from work and I don’t have access to school online, so things have been pretty hard right now. I just happened to walk by and see the food line and it made my day knowing I’ll have dinner tonight.”
Neville Pennicott shared his fortuitous experience stumbling across the food line. “After working at the Port of Palm Beach for 15 years, I was laid off because of COVID-19 closures. I didn’t know what to do for work, so I went to visit my friend who is a mechanic to see if he had any work for me. He couldn’t give me any work, and I was just driving back thinking ‘What am I going to do now?’ I saw the sign and said, ‘Thank God!’ Thank you for all the hard work you’re doing today.”
As the distribution drew to a close, Scott Bunkelmann, whose wife Ruthie is the development specialist and social worker for Pediatric Partners of Palm Beach Gardens, arrived with ten boxes of baby formula. Scott and Ruthie, parishioners of Holy Name of Jesus Church in West Palm Beach, were humbled to contribute to the services provided by Catholic Charities of Palm Beach.
“We’re all in this together,” said Scott. “Now is the time to practice selflessness and be the helping hand our neighbors need.”
Catholic Charities of Palm Beach served 144 households, 523 individuals, that day. The food distribution team packed up what was leftover and carried out the same process at St. Mary Church in Pahokee, April 24, serving 108 households, 408 individuals. Among the food distributed were vegetables, frozen meats and canned goods.
Frankie Chevere, chief executive officer and executive director of Catholic Charities of Palm Beach, reflected, “Service days like these are at the core of our organization. Helping struggling people get through a time of uncertainty by providing food is a small but powerful act. To see their appreciative, smiling faces makes it all worth it.”
For more information on the pandemic relief services provided by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Palm Beach, visit ccdpb.org or call 561-345-2000. To learn about program donation opportunities, call 561-775-9560. Follow the organization on Facebook @catholiccharitiespb.