While some were panic-buying vast quantities of cleaning products, hand sanitizer and toilet paper March 12, members of the Faith Leaders Alliance were meeting at The Journey church in Harriman to figure out how to get food to families who need it.
As the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, continues to spread throughout the region, prompting the effective cancellation of normal life, leaders from local congregations, village governments and the Monroe-Woodbury School District talked hunger contingency plans.
According to Eric Hassler, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Monroe-Woodbury schools, there are a number of students in the district who depend on the schools being open for more than their education.
“In a lot of cases, the school meals that they receive are the only source of nourishment that they get on a fairly consistent basis,” he said. “When you talk about extended days off, spring break, summer time, there’s a lot of concern that we have sending the kids off.”
For the 2018-19 school year, 2,129 M-W students received free or reduced price school meals, Hassler said, which was 32 percent of the district’s population.
In Orange County, 43 percent of the population, or 24,698 children, enrolled in public school in grades K-12 received free or reduced price school lunch during the 2017-18 school year, according to the New York State Education Department.
With every day bringing news of more and more COVID-19 shutdowns, Hassler said it was important to come up with a strategy to help feed students who might not be getting enough to eat at home.
“When you have a break on a calendar, we have the ability to plan for things like that,” he said. “When all of a sudden there’s a possibility that you may say the whole family’s going to be home for a week or two weeks, that really kind of throws a wrench in the works.”
With the number of confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 on the rise, Orange County Executive Steve Neuhaus recommended a two-week closure of all county public schools on March 13.
Following the recommendation, school districts throughout the county announced extended closures including Goshen, Chester, Florida, Warwick, Greenwood Lake, Tuxedo and Monroe-Woodbury. The closures are expected to last until mid-April.
By mid-week, Orange County had 18 confirmed coronavirus cases, up from seven on Monday. There are more than 800 confirmed positive cases statewide.
“The school district is a large place,” Hassler said. “From Woodbury to Tuxedo to Chester, families don’t have transportation. If we’re going to provide some of these supports, how can we find ways to be able to get families to the food pantry at the church or the synagogue?”
In the past, Girl Scout troops have donated taxi vouchers to the M-W district, he said, which have helped parents without transportation attend Back to School nights or parent-teacher conferences.
Peter Jones, lead pastor at The Journey church, said the strength of the group could be found in their numbers.
“I think our greatest asset is to mobilize our volunteers that we have within our various organizations,” he said. “Whether it is through transportation or trying to partner with the food pantry, to be able to partner with each other and give you the support that you need – that’s what is going to be effective for us.”
Open on the first and third Saturdays of the month, the food pantry at the First Presbyterian Church of Monroe served 93 people, or 40 families last month, pantry Co-Director Vicki McDewell said.
At Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Monroe, Pastor David Rider said there would be changes to the procedures of the soup kitchen and the food pantry, to try to minimize the spread of the virus, but that both agencies would continue to distribute food.
“We’re going to keep everything going during this crisis,” Rider said. “We’re going to have hot meals ready to hand out to people as they come, and the food pantry’s going to keep going too.”
According to Betsy Johnston, director of Parish Outreach for Sacred Heart, the soup kitchen – called Our Father’s Kitchen – serves more than 75 people each week, while the food pantry and mobile food pantry serves more than 300 per week.
Currently Sacred Heart’s mobile food pantry operates on Mondays and Fridays, but Rider said the hours could be adjusted to help deliver food.
“I’m wondering, if it comes down to it, if maybe I could extend this and make this an everyday thing,” he said. “Get a group of volunteers and drive around all day long and bring people hot meals.”
Rider’s proposal was met with enthusiastic pledges of support from throughout the room.
“That’s what I think we’re going to need to do,” Jones said.
Pastor Maria Jones, also of The Journey church, said people who want to help should reach out to their local faith leaders or to food pantries, shelters or soup kitchens to see if extra hands are needed.
While still fairly new, the Faith Leaders Alliance is comprised of 13 members and counting. At the March 13 meeting, Rabbi Roger Lerner represented the Monroe Temple of Liberal Judaism in Monroe, Pastor Elijah Ogunyemi represented God's Grace Ministry in Harriman, Lynn Jefferies represented the First Presbyterian Church of Monroe and Jerome Spector represented Congregation Eitz Chaim in Monroe as a member of that group’s board.
Village of Woodbury Mayor Timothy Egan and Village of Monroe Mayor Neil Dwyer were present as guests.
"We’re going to keep everything going during this crisis. We’re going to have hot meals ready to hand out to people as they come, and the food pantry’s going to keep going, too.”
- Pastor David Rider, Sacred Heart Catholic Church