WOONSOCKET — Thanks to the New Beginnings soup kitchen, donations and hastily assembled teams of volunteers led by the city of Woonsocket, a multi-pronged effort is under way to continue providing the poor, senior citizens and other at-risk populations, cut off from dining rooms by Covid-19, with access to the food they need during these challenging times.
New Beginnings is pushing out about 80 hot meals a day from the basement kitchen of All Saints Church, where Director and Head Chef Jeanne Michon says the staff is seeing more children than usual and the newly unemployed.
“A lot of new faces,” says Michon, whose operations have switched from cafeteria-style dine-in to “grab 'n' go” bags.
There was also a big push this week to get pantry staples into the hands of senior citizens, including many of the same people who used to rely on the dining room at Aging Well – the new name for Senior Services Inc., at 84 Social St., also known as the senior center. Like restaurants and other locales where people used to be able to gather for a drink and a meal, it's been shut down on orders from Gov. Gina Raimondo in attempts to curb the spread of Covid-19.
On Wednesday, Woonsocket Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt said, a team of volunteers that included employees of the city, the Woonsocket Police Deaprtment, and the Americorps youth service organization delivered about 800 packages of staples to a half-dozen public high rises and private complexes where senior citizens live.
The food was supplied to the city as a result of partnership between the state and the RI Community Food Bank. The staples were delivered to the Aging Well center, where the volunteers assembled the packages and later delivered them to Waterview Apartments, Chateau Claire, Kennedy Manor, Crepeau Court, Parkview Manor and St. Germain Manor.
Some packages were dropped outside residents' doors, but many others came out to greet the food couriers, and they were clearly elated.
“We didn't see everybody because some packages were dropped at the door,” Baldelli-Hunt said. “Many were very, very appreciative.”
Not every delivery contained the same items, but most had a jar of peanut butter, rice or pasta, canned tuna, grape jelly, canned beans, cornflakes, boxed milk and fresh produce, including potatoes and carrots.
It's an laudable effort, Baldelli-Hunt says, since many seniors are not only cut off from restaurants and dining rooms, they're potentially more isolated than ever due to the state's aggressive response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Raimondo and the Rhode Island Department of Health aren't merely instructing citizens to avoid gatherings of more than 10, they're urging seniors to be even more judicious, since they're the most at-risk population for serious complications from the virus.
“They're being asked to stay home,” said Baldelli-Hunt. “How are they receiving the foods they need? They might not have someone in their family available to bring the food that's necessary for them.”
Baldelli-Hunt says the RI Community Food Bank has indicated that it intends to continue making the bulk staple deliveries to the senior center, but the schedule remains fluid amid the overarching uncertainty of the trajectory of the Covid-19 outbreak, and how else the state may respond.
Meanwhile, over at New Beginnings, Michon thinks that some of the new faces picking up meals at the site include those of individuals laid off within the last couple of weeks, as well as poor families whose children rely on schools to provide them with a breakfast and a lunch every day.
Even though schools were closed down nearly three weeks ago, the Woonsocket Education Department and other school districts throughout the state are still distributing daily meals to go. But Michon thinks parents are taking advantage of all the help they can get during the Covid-19 crisis – including the offerings at New Beginnings.
“I think they're utilizing every opportunity they can to make sure there's enough food in the house for their kids,” said Michon.
With unemployment claims surpassing the 75,000 mark in just the last few weeks – a higher number than those displaced during the Great Recession of 2008 – Michon thinks some of the soup kitchen's new regulars may have just gotten laid off from their jobs.
New Beginnings normally invites guests, including the working poor and the homeless, into the basement of the Rathbun Street church for a sit-down meal Mondays through Thursdays. It's always a no-questions-asked, all-comers-eat situation.
The staff tried to continue the service when the initial guidance from Gov. Raimondo allowed up to 25 people to congregate in any one place. A few days later, Raimondo lowered the cap to 10 people, in keeping with the recommendations of the federal Centers for Disease Control, at which point Michon threw in the towel on dine-in service and switched to distributing to-go bags only.
Guests come no more than a few feet into the church to pick up a hot meal that's packaged in a styrofoam container, with plastic utensils and a bottle of water.
To avoid the formation of gatherings outside the church, if guests show up early they're asked to leave and come back later, says Michon. Meals are distributed from noon-1 p.m.
“These are the same meals I would cook if the guests were sitting in the dining room,” said Michon, who adds New Beginnings is the only meal site presently operating in the city.
Michon said she's noticed some dropoff in food donations from Walmart and Stop & Shop, two of her most generous corporate donors, although deliveries from the RI Community Food Bank, the biggest source of the meal site's fare, appear stable.
Indeed, Michon says that she's more worried about running out of packaging supplies than food as Covid-19 stirs concern over interruptions in the supply chain. Styrofoam containers, for example, aren't normally in the budget for the non-profit organization, but Michon has been buying them and asking for donations. Aluminum foil and other supplies used to prep food for take-out are also needed, as well as rubber gloves.
“We're going through gloves, gloves and gloves,” she said. “If this keeps up for very long pretty soon we're going to run short.”
For all the hardships and sacrifice that have been thrust upon people everywhere as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Baldelli-Hunt says she is heartened at least to see how eager many are to pitch in and do whatever they can to help.
“Sometimes crisis brings out a part of humanity we don't always see which is very warm and encouraging,” she said.
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo