On Thursday, in a parallel universe where a novel coronavirus did not spread into a global pandemic, Catering by Design was scheduled to serve dinner at an elegant opera fund-raiser for the homeless-services provider Broad Street Ministry.

That, of course, has been canceled — along with all of the caterer’s 90 other April bookings.

Instead, the caterer loaded up its 14-foot truck and headed out to serve the same nonprofit on a very different mission: to provide as many as 3,600 meals a day at centrally located sites to people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia.

The food run was part of Step Up to the Plate, a massive coordinated effort launched this week by the city with nonprofits including Project HOME, Prevention Point, and Broad Street Ministry.

The goal is to safely ensure homeless people have access to two meals a day, at a time when Philadelphia’s hunger crisis is growing — while contagion concerns have made established food-distribution models untenable. It’s also keeping caterers, which are providing the meals at cost, on the job during the shutdown. And, perhaps most important, the meal service is paired with health-care access, including coronavirus testing.

That way, said Mike Dahl, Broad Street Ministry’s executive director, “we have a much better chance of screening our guests, getting them tested, and getting them the housing they need if they test positive.”

He initiated the collaboration after he was forced to dismantle his organization’s longtime model of “radical hospitality,” involving sit-down meals prepared by dozens of volunteers and served at big, communal, round tables.

As the coronavirus arrived in Philadelphia, Broad Street Ministry pivoted to letting people come in only to get meals to-go — but enforcing social distancing still proved impossible.

“The numbers of people showing up for meals was just going through the roof, and our ability to keep the guests safe and to keep our staff safe was being challenged," Dahl said. "We were handing out approximately 250 meals in the first 15 minutes.”

So, grant-makers, led by the Independence Foundation, pitched in more than $850,000 in 10 days to support a different model.

Now, catering companies, including 12th Street Catering and Herb Scott Catering, are contributing bagged meals at cost. Thursday’s menu included a roast-beef sandwich, cookie, and water for lunch, and a chicken-vegetable-and-grain bowl with rancho sauce meant to be saved for dinner.

Volunteers hand out food to the homeless in front of City Hall on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Philly nonprofits that can no longer serve food indoors have banded together to hire caterers to provide food to homeless residents, serving meals outside and connecting them with medical care and coronavirus screenings.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Volunteers hand out food to the homeless in front of City Hall on Wednesday, April 15, 2020. Philly nonprofits that can no longer serve food indoors have banded together to hire caterers to provide food to homeless residents, serving meals outside and connecting them with medical care and coronavirus screenings.

They drop them off at sites including City Hall, a municipal parking lot in Kensington, and locations in Germantown, North Philadelphia, and South Philadelphia. And, nonprofit staff distribute the meals and direct guests to screenings or other medical services.

The city contributed expedited permitting, police for crowd control, daily trash pickups, hand-washing stations, and bathroom trailers.

Sister Mary Scullion of Project HOME, which is providing coronavirus testing along with other medical care at the Hub of Hope in the subway concourse near City Hall, called the partnership a “better-case scenario” in a crisis that poses a particular threat to homeless individuals, many of whom already have complex health concerns.

If there’s one thing the coronavirus proves, she said, it is “housing really is health care."

“As difficult as it is for people who have been impacted by this virus and have to quarantine at home, if you don’t have a home it’s even more frightening and challenging,” she said. “It’s both a hunger crisis and a health-care crisis and a housing crisis for those that are experiencing homelessness.”

Step Up to the Plate is just one of several strategies the city is working on to address the risk to homeless people, said Eva Gladstein, deputy managing director of health and human services.

For one, the city is “eagerly” trying to procure rapid coronavirus tests specifically for homeless-services providers — but there’s only one manufacturer and many customers competing for the same supply. For another, officials still aim to open a 24-hour respite center in Kensington, to allow at least small numbers of people to come indoors and access services.

The city is also looking at housing options to isolate medically vulnerable people — though hurdles include staffing such facilities and designing a system to prioritize those at greatest risk.

For now, the meal program solves one of the most pressing problems — albeit in a manner that confounds everything the city has prized in its homeless response up until now.

“For years, we’ve worked to make sure people who are homeless are served indoors, with dignity, where they can be connected to services," Gladstein said. "The COVID crisis has turned that on its head.”

Still, outside City Hall, Tesha Jones, 30, accepted her bag of food graciously. “This is the best thing out here. The food is delicious,” she said, swatting away a companion who was already demanding she hand over her cookie.

People take hand sanitizer in front of City Hall on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
People take hand sanitizer in front of City Hall on Wednesday, April 15, 2020.

The program is also not a cure-all for out-of-work caterers.

Catering by Design’s Peter Loevy estimates that, financially, he would have been better off closing temporarily and laying off all staff. To get the massive orders filled, even his bookkeeper and sales team have taken turns on the line, in the rush to ramp up production while minimizing the number of people coming into the kitchen.

Still, he said, “it’s a win-win, in that we’re all participating in what we love to do, which is feeding people. So I’m happy to keep it going, until, God forbid, somebody gets sick and we need to shut it down."

For now, the launch of Step Up to the Plate in Kensington solves one of the most pressing problems, as staples St. Francis Inn and Prevention Point both cut back from two meals a day to one grab-and-go lunch.

Jose Benitez, executive director of Prevention Point, said there will be hand-washing stations and chairs set up in the parking lot — encouraging people to sit and eat while social-distancing. The goal is to restore some semblance of hospitality, and also contain some of the litter generated by thousands of takeout containers. Prevention Point and Philadelphia FIGHT will be providing medical care on site — and aim to roll out coronavirus testing in the next few weeks.

“What it really shows is Philadelphians taking care of Philadelphians,” Benitez said. “I think that’s something that is reassuring. We don’t know how long this is going to last, but we at least have formulated some sort of coordinated response.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.