At the end of a year like no other, in a Philadelphia neighborhood hit hard by both the opioid and the coronavirus crises, a meal program created as a stopgap back in the spring has proved a durable bright spot, especially at Christmas.
Months of free packaged meals, topped by a hot Christmas Day buffet, provide both a sense of normalcy, and a reminder of just how far away “normal” can feel in the last days of 2020, especially in Kensington.
Thursday, people seeking lunch lined up outside a tent made festive with birch branches and pine boughs.
“I just think it’s a beautiful thing they’re doing for the community,” said John Fornara, 56, a former boxer who lives in Kensington.
The meal program, called Step Up to the Plate, was initially supposed to last just seven weeks to ease Philadelphians in need through the spring lockdowns.
The initiative pulled funding from local philanthropies, plus food and staffing from restaurants and caterers who found themselves otherwise out of work, to serve lunches to go five days a week.
Local nonprofits set up three distribution sites: Prevention Point, the Kensington-based public health group for people in addiction; Broad Street Ministries, which serves the homeless in Center City; and SEAMAAC, a South Philadelphia organization that works with immigrants and refugees.
At the Kensington site, 550 meals initially were served a day. And as the pandemic spiraled, Step Up to the Plate passed its seven-week mark and began raising funds for the long haul. The group has served 160,000 meals in Kensington alone this year, and now has money to continue through March.
“The pandemic has only exposed — or heightened — what we already knew has been going on in the community, as far as food insecurity and homelessness and lack of resources in the area,” said Clayton Ruley, Prevention Point’s Director of Community Engagement and Volunteer Services.
As the year went on, Ruley and other providers tried to help clients beyond just providing meals. The Kensington site at Ruth and Clearfield Streets — dubbed the “Love Lot” — also offered yoga classes and handed out boxes of produce. They launched a COVID-19 testing program in June.
“On a daily basis, we can have service providers or individuals come and add something significant to the day — a coat drive, hot beverages and oatmeal, cups of soup in addition to our meals, hats and scarves,” Ruley said. “Under all reasonable odds, we try to work them into our standard meal service.”
Local restaurants and catering companies provide the daily meal; Peter Loevy’s Catering by Design is there most frequently. He said the program had been a lifeline for his staff, who would otherwise be out of work. He felt compelled to help others during the pandemic.
“My staff was grateful to be using their time in something so important — rather than just sitting at home,” he said. “It’s gratifying to know the impact it’s having in the world.”
Ruley stressed that the meal program is not only for people living on the street or dealing with addiction. It’s for anyone who needs food.
“We know that COVID hit all the community,” he said. “Consistency is the most important thing people appreciate about Prevention Point’s services, and the Step Up to the Plate site is definitely under the same guise. Whether it’s raining, snowing, windy, hot, they know they can come and we’re going to be around. I think it’s helped some folks who might not have accessed our services otherwise to understand that we’re concerned just as much with the overall wellness of the community, especially during these times.”
The Love Lot and SEAMAAC’s South Philadelphia site have set up warming tents where clients can eat their meal while socially distanced. For the buffet dinner on Christmas Day, the tent will be festooned in holiday decorations from Hoffman Design and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
“If we can make an experience feel more like what [clients] grew up with — or in some circumstances, what they didn’t grow up with but always wanted, that’s an optimum thing to encourage,” Ruley said. “Many of us are fortunate to have homes to go to and families to see during the holidays. The least we can do for folks who are food insecure and struggling with homelessness is give them a little sense of normalcy.”
Nookie-Wu McCoi, a Prevention Point client, said Thursday that the program is a real bright spot in his day, both for the food and for the people.
”The charity and camaraderie — it shows that they care about the people on the bottom. The have-nots. And the food they do give out — I appreciate the vendors,” he said, adding with a laugh: “It’s not no bologna and cheese.”