Since March 30, the City of Philadelphia has run 40 food distribution sites supplied by anti-hunger nonprofits every Monday and Thursday to feed people during the pandemic.
Those spots were closed on Monday because of fears generated by the protests roiling the area.
The result: Around 16,000 city households missed out on 250,000 pounds of food for the day, according to George Matysik, executive director of Share Food Program, one of the hunger-fighting agencies. Share typically provides food for the Monday distributions.
Beyond that, Philabundance, the other distributor of food for low-income individuals in the region, was compelled to skip food delivery to many of its approximately 350 food pantries on Monday because of safety worries. It wasn’t clear how many people were directly affected.
Although city officials said the plan as of late Monday afternoon was to give away the Share supplies on Tuesday, families denied food for just a day were forced to scramble to make up for the nutrition they’ve come to depend on.
“One day off from food is not something any of us need,” said Luisa Baerga, 53, an evangelical minister who lives in poverty in Hunting Park. She suffers from congestive heart failure, and her 12-year-old son has Down syndrome. Her other son, 20, has been unable to find work during the pandemic, and spends his days watching his brother.
Though she needs food desperately, Baerga said, she always gives some of her supply to homeless people in her area. She was once homeless herself, she said.
Baerga understands why losing food can be catastrophic.
“Not getting food Monday cuts us from three meals to one for me and my two kids," she said. "And I’m not sure if breakfast is guaranteed for Tuesday. My children cannot go hungry.”
Already hard hit by the physical savagery of a plague that especially victimizes low-income residents, Philadelphians living in poverty have had to contend with the job losses and wrecked economy ascribed to COVID-19, as well as the physical fallout from demonstrations that have burned and bedeviled their own neighborhoods.
Add to that a raft of meals lost to a food-insecure population for whom even a day’s delay in eating means discomfort and potential health issues.
“After a weekend of planned meals, parents depended on Monday’s food to start the agenda for a new week of eating,” said Asteria Vives, executive director of the nonprofit Home Quarters and Friends, which serves families in Fairhill, Philadelphia’s poorest neighborhood. "Now they face an imbalance.
“This is a curve ball. It’ll bring concerns come Monday night, when lots of children won’t be eating and, because of that, won’t be sleeping, either. Today, people were either calling me complaining about the rioting, or crying because their grandchildren need food that wasn’t there.”
Even a “small kink in the food safety net” will result in bringing increased food insecurity here, said Samantha Retamar, spokesperson for Philabundance.
Matysik, of Share, said that not being able to disburse food that he knows people are depending on pains him. “And,” he said, “need is only trending upward.” He said he was disappointed to learn that over the weekend, two of the nonprofits whose sites are typically used to give away food were vandalized during demonstrations. Matysik wasn’t sure Monday evening whether food was stolen.
Unlike an electric bill or a landlord looking to evict, food is not something a family can negotiate or put off, said sociologist Judith Levine, director of Temple University’s Public Policy Lab.
“You’re layering pressing deprivation and a whole new level of uncertainty of not knowing where the next meal is coming from onto people,” she said. “This is a very sad consequence of what’s been happening" amid the widespread demonstrations.
Unlike middle-class residents who have been able to stock their pantries during the pandemic, low-income Philadelphians don’t have the money to lay in a supply of food ahead of time to stave off disaster, Levine said. “You go day by day, and that’s a very dire situation.”
The halting of the Monday food giveaway was the talk of hunger fighters throughout the city, said Compton Chase, a missionary who runs the Somerton Interfaith Food Pantry in Northeast Philadelphia.
“Remember, people only go out to get free food if they’re in need,” Chase said. “When it’s not available, it increases their stress. It’s a lot of pain for a parent to have to explain to a child why the food they were counting on is not here today.”
Reminded that middle-class people may not understand why postponing a food distribution for 24 hours can mean so much, Chase grew angry.
“The middle class, if they don’t know by now how Philadelphians are suffering, they’ve got their heads buried in the snow, or someplace else,” he said.
“I come from Guyana, and I know what poverty is. Here, we are getting closer to that kind of poverty. How much more can people stand?”