By Dan Russo
WATERLOO — The coronavirus pandemic has shut down many services and events, but at least two Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Dubuque — in Waterloo and Dubuque respectively — have continued to provide free weekly meals to the needy, with some modifications.
St. Patrick Parish in Dubuque has had a weekly community meal for over three decades. On Wednesday evenings, various volunteers from across the city join forces with a core team to prepare and serve hot and cold foods in the parish hall. Since the coronavirus became a threat to public health, organizers have shut the hall, but are giving out food in to go boxes on the sidewalk outside, while maintaining the recommended social distance and taking other precautions.
“A lot of our people walk to our site,” said Dave Becker, a St. Patrick parishioner, who is part of the core team that manages the meal.
Over the course of about 90 minutes April 1, volunteers gave out bags with platters containing pasta, pulled pork, fruit and other items to a steady stream of people. In all, Becker estimated that they served about 125-140 that day, including deliveries to nearby shelters for the homeless.
The core volunteers received help with the distribution from a local Knights of Columbus council that week. They routinely accept visiting volunteers and rely on donations from HyVee Food Stores and St. Stephen’s Food Bank.
“A lot of the people are food insecure,” explained Sandy Shaffer, another regular volunteer.
Both Shaffer and Becker expressed concern that the economic consequences of shutdowns due to the pandemic might cause a big financial hit to some of the people who come to St. Patrick’s meal. But the value in the meal is not just nutritional.
“They come down to socialize,” said Becker. “A lot of people are lonely and now (because of the pandemic) it’s worse yet.”
He said the fact that people can’t gather together at the meals has been hard for many. The meal program has its own funds that rely on donations. The cost does not affect St. Patrick Parish’s budget, according to Becker. Becker and Shaffer said that, with the community’s support, they will continue to give out meals in take-out form while observing health and safety guidelines in place during the pandemic.
Queen of Peace Parish in Waterloo has been hosting a community meal on Tuesdays for about 25 years, according to Rod Crowe, who has been the lead cook for the last several years. During a typical weekly meal, about 120-200 people usually visit the parish to eat, but that has all changed since the coming of the coronavirus. When social distancing guidelines went into effect, the parish hall gatherings ended and the volunteers who prepare the meals adapted.
“The first week, we handed out groceries,” said Crowe. “Normally we have 25 volunteers, now we’re down to 10 (or less).”
On April 7, the most recent meal night, the skeleton crew of volunteers prepared platters for takeout. They were distributed on the street outside, Crowe said. The parish supports the meal effort with assistance from the area St. Vincent de Paul Society and local Knights of Columbus. Crowe said people who are food insecure typically have a pretty good network that helps them get food in the area, but he is concerned since many organizations have stopped serving meals. Although the U.S. Congress recently passed a coronavirus relief bill, which was signed by the president, Crowe said local small business owners he knows are still trying to navigate the loan and grant process to obtain money the legislation makes available and many workers have lost jobs or been temporarily furloughed.
“I have someone in my own family who is laid off,” said Crowe.
The Queen of Peace meal program organizers plan to continue offering sidewalk pick up of meals and are implementing precautions like wearing masks and gloves and practicing social distancing.
Crowe urged people in the community to continue to be generous to those in need.
“Donate to the food banks and the St. Vincent de Paul Society and donate to your parish,” he said.
The Catholic parishes of Waterloo have compiled resources online on living as people of faith during the pandemic. For more information, visit: https://waterloocatholics.org/pandemic-2.
Volunteers from Queen of Peace Parish’s meal program pose while preparing food for distribution in Waterloo April 7. Instead of serving a sit-down meal inside the church, the volunteers have given out bags of groceries or made take-out platters in to go boxes since the emergence of COVID-19 social distancing precautions. As seen in the photo, the volunteers also wear masks and gloves. (Contributed photo)