Since mid-march, Lebanon County Christian Ministries has provided emergency food orders for 65 households directly affected economically due to COVID-19, has served 8,053 free noon meals and has taken on an additional cost of housing shelter residents at a hotel as a precautionary measure.
In recent weeks, noon meal attendance has remained steady with 175 to 200 people served per day, but emergency food orders have decreased to pre-COVID-19 numbers. Shelter guests are living in a hotel, but for how long?
Life is uncertain heading into the summer months, but LCCM’s Executive Director, Bryan Smith, forecasted what food insecurity, housing, and other needs may look like in the near- and long-term future on LCCM’s recent Facebook Live interview held Tuesday, May 5, in celebration of #GivingTuesdayNow
Here are three things you should know.
1. Food insecurity
LCCM saw a major increase in emergency food orders within a week after Gov. Tom Wolf issued a stay-at-home order in mid-March.
Emergency food orders at LCCM provide a 2-week supply of grocery-style food to individuals and families in need of fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and other dairy products, meat and other perishable and nonperishable items.
Pre-COVID-19, LCCM served an average of 25-38 households weekly (including 70-100 individuals) and during the peak of COVID-19 the need spiked to about 50-60 households (including 130 to 140 individuals).
Since mid-April, households served have gone back down to pre-COVID-19 numbers due to governmental assistance, including unemployment, food assistance programs and stimulus checks, and, perhaps to a lesser degree, supplemental food box giveaways provided by various churches and organizations throughout Lebanon County.
After 2 job losses due to COVID-19, family of 5 turns to LCCM for food assistance
“I feel that this data has really shown that when the state subsidies and governmental assistance kicked up, its made an impact on the emergency need as well as some of the distribution of boxes going out through the community – that’s made an impact as well,” Smith said.
“We’ll go back to pre-COVID-19 numbers, but on our way back to pre-COVID numbers, we may see some spikes where governmental assistance isn’t there. That’s what we’ve been positioned for – we’ve been positioned as a faith-based entity, community-based nonprofit that’s here to take care of our neighbors and our community, and that’s really what we’re here for.”
Smith added that the biggest challenge in food distribution is balancing the limited availability of non-perishables in bulk food purchasing programs with the large amount of perishable items in donations from local businesses.
Meanwhile, the daily free noon meal continues to hold steady at 175 to 200 guests per day - pre-COVID-19, a busy winter day saw an average of 130 guests.
Meet Heather, LCCM's noon meal coordinator
“Does that ever go back down?” Smith asked. “I don’t know. Historians and friends of ours were telling us that LCCM was serving 250 to 300 people daily in the early ‘80s” when LCCM formed in response to the shuttering of businesses such as Bethlehem Steel.
2. Food supply
LCCM is still able to obtain food purchases from vendors, though there has been a slow down in product acquisition. LCCM acquires food through a variety of ways, including donations, state food funding, The Emergency Food Assistance Program, and grocery store donations.
“Early on, we saw the grocery store donations make a complete decline,” Smith said. “They went away because there was this mass run – everyone was out getting everything, bread shelves were empty. Those are things that we rely on to share with those who are in need.”
Recently, only 25 percent of LCCM’s last food order from our supplier was delivered, which is consistent with what some local grocers are experiencing.
LCCM, however, has not had any difficulty providing food for any of its food assistance programs.
3. Emergency shelter
Since March 13, FRESH Start Emergency Shelter and Resource Center guests have been staying at a local hotel as a precautionary measure. The resource center continues to operate for a few hours daily so guests can make meals and do laundry and check in with shelter staff.
LCCM staff is developing a plan for the yellow and green statuses that will eventually be assigned to Lebanon County.
In the yellow zone, Smith is working with some local community members to possibly transition guests out of the hotel setting into a less costly physical location that would still provides safety measures for social distancing.
Once Lebanon County can enter the ‘green’ phase, it is still unclear if there is a so-called normal to return to.
“Ideally, green would say hey, we can go back to where we were before with churches, but we are sensitive to the concerns of what churches are going to want to do," he said.
Churches have hosted the emergency shelter on a two-week rotational basis for seven years. Each day for two weeks, three to five volunteers from churches would donate their time toward working in shifts – including overnight.
“It’s taxing,” Smith said.
Additionally, cold weather shelter has been identified as a gap in services in Lebanon County. A cold weather shelter provides a safe, warm place for people who are homeless during the winter months where someone can show up to sleep with no requirements for entry, such as a drug test or a bench warrant check.
“It’s time to start planning two to three years down the road, as well as for the family-based shelter,” Smith said. “Is it time for us to start looking at a physical location? The reality is that it comes with a whole boatload of opportunities, but challenges. Do we need a physical location? Where is it? How do we fund it? …It’s going to look different on the other end. It’s going to be a challenge but let’s look at it as an opportunity to just kind of kick it up a notch for our community.”