By Anne D’Urso-Rose
The line snaked in fits and starts along a path outside the First Baptist Church of Malden. Those waiting for their free meals from Bread of Life were practicing social distancing with unequal measurements of separation.
“I’ve been coming for many years,” said Govan, a Bread of Life meal patron, as he waited in good spirits. “These people are wonderful. We’d all be lost without them.”
Life is challenging for Malden residents these days but for those with the least amount of resources, the situation has hit harder. To address the need, dedicated staff and volunteers on the front lines continue to serve the city’s most vulnerable residents with commitment and resourcefulness.
“Since last week, the numbers seemed to be going up,” said John Robillard, the Meals Program Assistant for Bread of Life. “Today (Tuesday) we have 75 meals, where normally we make about 50.”
“People have to eat,” said Gabriella Snyder Stelmack, Executive Director of the Bread of Life, in a recent interview with Neighborhood View. “We’ve had to make changes in the way we do things since the coronavirus emergency measures have been put in place, but the staff and volunteers have been great.”
Bread of Life is a 40-year-old, faith-based organization serving the hungry, homeless, needy, and isolated in Malden and surrounding communities. The organization typically brings together volunteers from 45 churches, high schools, and community groups to offer free evening meals four nights a week, an emergency food pantry, free clothing, grocery delivery to senior citizens in public housing, and food delivery to homeless families sheltered in local motels. Each year, they provide the equivalent of over 1 million meals or 1.5 million pounds of food.
“Since this hit, we’ve been working to maintain a balance between keeping staff, volunteers, and patrons safe from virus exposure, while also getting food to our most vulnerable neighbors,” said Snyder Stelmack.
The Bread of Life operation has had to shift to be entirely takeout.
“No more sit down dinners,” said Snyder Stelmack. “We were used to packaging food for takeout for seconds for our patrons, so now it’s just all done that way. Like last night (Friday), we did shepherd’s pie. And then we give them a goodie bag that might have apple juice, yogurt, a granola bar, or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich – whatever we have on hand that night.”
The takeout distribution is set up on a big table covered by a canopy on the lawn of the First Baptist church; normally the meal would be shared inside.
Preparing the food has also been impacted by the emergency situation.
“A lot of groups that normally come have had to bow out, like school groups, companies, and churches,” said Snyder Stelmack. “They understandably don’t want to take the risk. But we have our staff and a small cadre of volunteers that continue to come in and it’s just incredible. We keep the group small and space ourselves out in the kitchen and we wear protective clothing. We’re also working with various caterers to provide meals on certain nights, like for example, Anthony’s Restaurant will provide a meal on Tuesday night, and there are others.”
The organization has also had to modify its pantry services. On March 13, when Everett made the call to close its city hall and the public schools until April 27, Bread of Life had no choice but to shut down the Everett food pantry because it was based in the Everett City Hall.
“We made a decision that night to hand out takeout meals and get out information to Everett residents,” said Snyder Stelmack. “We told them that they would be able to come to the Malden pantry.”
The Malden site is based at Bread of Life headquarters at 54 Eastern Ave. and is typically open on Wednesday, 4 to 6 p.m, and Fridays, 2 to 4 p.m. The pantry hours have been kept the same.
“As far as the Malden pantry goes, we had to figure out what to do about minimizing exposure. The staff got together at the 11th hour and, by last Friday, we had implemented a streamlined system that minimizes contact and prevents people from congregating at the various waiting stations that usually happen when we do the pantry.”
“Nobody needs to come inside the building. which eliminates a waiting line in our hallway to sign in and then a line in the waiting room and a line to get to the distribution room.”
Instead, everything is now pre-bagged which does eliminate the choices patrons used to have. Patrons generally receive four bags of groceries, which include fresh produce, dairy, eggs, meats and fish, bread, frozen foods, and non-perishable items. The groceries are intended to last patrons a week and supplement whatever they might get from using their own paychecks, food stamps (SNAP program), WIC and other sources of aid.
“We have thousands of members that have been issued a card showing their eligibility,” said Snyder Stelmack. “And the intake process to receive a card is somewhat extensive. But right now, we’re not doing any new intakes. Yet we don’t turn anyone away. We just make a note of the person or family and check them off. Everyone used to sign in but now we don’t want people to share pens, so we just sign for them.”
Bread of Life gets its food from donations and from the Greater Boston Food Bank, where the organization can purchase food at a very low cost. This includes fresh high quality proteins, fresh produce, and frozen foods.
The organization is also continuing its delivery of meals to homeless families staying at motels. “I just received an email from a family that received a grocery delivery,” said Snyder Stelmack. “She wrote, ‘I just want to thank you again for your help and kindness, my kids were very happy with a full stomach, please be safe and have a wonderful day.’ ”
However, the regular monthly delivery to about 700 senior citizens living in subsidized senior housing developments – a partnership with Mystic Valley Elder Services – was suspended. “MVES felt they needed to suspend this over concerns about seniors congregating during the food distribution inside the buildings,” said Snyder Stelmack. “We just this week started delivering groceries directly to seniors staying-at-home or families that cannot send someone out for food. We are receiving referrals from elected officials in the cities we serve as well as human services agencies.”
Snyder Stelmack said that a mother from Everett recently emailed the organization to say that she has ” ‘Four children and a husband who is a disabled veteran. I have been having struggles with this virus going around but my family are healthy thank goodness. As you know there are limited access and very hard to come by with limited transportation and local pantries are cleaned out. We told her that we would deliver a box of groceries for her family. She replied, ‘That would be most appreciated I am so thankful that there are people like you…again, thank you.’ ”
Bread of Life works closely with other human service organizations in the city – Housing Families, ABCD, Cambridge Health Alliance, and Mystic Valley Elder Services. “Everyone is trying their best to step up and fill the need in these challenging times,” said Snyder Stelmack.
Karen Lynch, a longtime volunteer with the Bread of Life, explains her deep commitment: “Every day that I arise, everything feels so strange. I think that one reason I continue to volunteer with Bread of Life is its familiarity. The other volunteers, and the guests, are familiar. I think that gives me inner strength. As the pandemic has grown, and the fear of going out has been stronger, I have dealt with a little fear and doubt. But on the other hand, I know that feeding the hungry and homeless is so important.”
Volunteers must be healthy and symptom-free. A list of protocols and precautions for all volunteers and patrons are listed on the Bread of Life website.
Ways You Can Help
Bread of Life is happy to receive your PERISHABLE AND NON-PERISHABLE food donations for the food pantry at 54 Eastern Ave in Malden, Tuesday – Friday, Noon – 5 p.m., as well as for the evening meals at First Baptist Church, corner of Main & Salem Streets in Malden, Tuesday – Friday, 4 – 7 p.m.
Bread of Life is NOT accepting clothing donations at this time due to restricted access of patrons to their sites, and the need to minimize potential contact with virus.
Volunteers are needed and welcome for the Food Pantry, any hours you have: Tuesday noon – 3:30 p.m., Wednesday noon – 6 p.m., Thursday noon – 3:30 p.m., and Friday noon – 4 p.m. at 54 Eastern Ave., Malden. You do not need to contact BOL in advance. Just come to the site during the designated hours.
Drivers needed to pick up food donations from individual porches or businesses, and to deliver groceries or meals in “drop-and-go” fashion. Please call or text Gabriella Snyder Stelmack, Executive Director, 781-475-9050.
Bread of Life invites partner organizations and volunteers to continue to provide food and a limited number of volunteers to prepare and package food in the kitchen of First Baptist Church, 3:30 – 7 p.m. Hot meals, sandwiches and soups are welcome. They have take-out containers for any type of prepared food. For questions, please text Maria Tiro at 781-548-9848 or John Robillard at 781-854-6337.