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Church, non-profits join forces to run a mini food bank during COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 5:00 PM, Jun 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-24 10:28:12-04

WINDSOR MILL, Md. — It’s a flurry of activity in the parking lot of St. Gabriel Catholic Church in Windsor Mill. Fork lifts are hauling pallets of fresh produce and milk off tractor trailers, while vans, trucks and other cars line up with their trunks open, ready for the food.

Meanwhile, volunteers are inside the church’s community center, sorting through more donations including food, clothes and personal care items.

This is the new normal at St. Gabriel since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

“We have essentially built up a business with over 100 volunteers that are working 12-14 hour days, 6-7 days a week sometimes,” said Dan Reese, a member of the parish council. “A business wouldn’t have been as effective starting up as we are.”

Back in early April, St. Gabriel teamed up with the local non-profits 4MyCiTy, So What Else and Food Rescue Baltimore to turn the church into a mini food bank. According to Christopher Dipnarine, the CEO of 4MyCiTy, they’ve distributed close to 10 million pounds of food since the start of the pandemic.

“It’s a lot of work to feed the communities right now,” he said.

The church provides the space to store the food, including a large refrigeration truck that sits in the parking lot, forklifts and portable conveyor belts. The other groups provide volunteers, resources and connections to get the food and other donations, like the fresh produce. Dipnarine secured a grant from the USDA called “Farmers to Families”, which saves fresh food from being thrown out.

“Food that would have been initially wasted is now going to be boxed produce and sent to distributors to give out to programs like this,” he said.

The fresh food is given to local families and also shared with a network of more than 150 other organizations from around Maryland and other states.

Rhadames Avila of Los Ninos de Maria in Bowie makes the trek to the church almost daily to get food, leaving his home before the sun rises to get a spot near the front of the line.

“We don’t mind getting up every day at 4:30-5 a.m. to be able to give [the food] to people who cannot come over here and pick it up by themselves,” he said. “We have great satisfaction to know that we are here to do something good for somebody else.”

St. Gabriel converted its community center, which was sitting empty because of COVID-19 restrictions, into a warehouse with more food from restaurants or grocery stores that would have been thrown out. They also collect diapers, clothes and personal items to box up.

“I think it’s a totally amazing project. The grassroots effort building upon an infrastructure that was there made a difference,” said Kacy Conley, a member of the parish council. “I don’t think we could have ever gone to the scale we were at if we didn’t have the tremendous support that we have of our entire parish community.”

The magnitude of this operation makes it hard to believe it started with just a few families from the church who wanted to do their part in responding to the pandemic. Jacqueline Ramos’ family helped to lead the charge.

“I do it with all my heart and I wish I could give more to everybody,” she said. “We started from a house, to the annex, to the community center. We’re grateful for that because we have more space and we can work all together as a family.”

Each group involved in this food distribution operation acknowledges that as individuals, they likely couldn’t have pulled this off on such a large scale. It’s one of the few silver linings to come out of the pandemic; people coming together, sharing resources, motivated to help by love and compassion.

“You look out into this parking lot and all of these people are making a difference in the community from such distances, it makes me feel that we are really making a difference as a parish,” said Conley.

If you would like to volunteer, make a donation, or you know a family who needs food, click here. You can also call 443-328-3230 or the parish office at 410-944-2106 x 16 if you or someone you know needs help.