Personnel, programs at diocesan Catholic Charities agencies help feed a hungry nation

A woman walks away with free groceries from the food pantry and free hot meals at a church in Boston April 14, 2020. (OSV News photo/Brian Snyder, Reuters)

(OSV News) – "It is a scandal," Pope Francis said in his 2013 message for World Food Day, "that there is still hunger and malnutrition in the world!"

The pontiff further warned against acceptance of that lethal truth, cautioning that "hunger and malnutrition can never be considered a normal occurrence to which one must become accustomed, as if it were part of the system. Something has to change in ourselves, in our mentality, in our societies."

Listeners may readily nod in agreement – while all too easily imagining that Pope Francis was speaking of some distant, developing nation.

But the truth is, even in the United States – the richest country in the world, if ranked by its $26.95 trillion gross domestic product, or GDP – 49 million Americans, one in every six, relied on food assistance from charities in 2022.

During Poverty Awareness Month, OSV News talked with Catholic Charities offices across the country – in Virginia, Mississippi and Nevada – to learn how they help feed a hungry nation.

The Diocese of Arlington, Virginia – just outside the nation's capital – is home to four of America's richest locales, in terms of median income: Loudoun, Fairfax and Arlington counties, and the city of Falls Church. It's a landscape distinguished by large homes, elevated rents and a highly educated workforce.

"But the reality is that – even in this prosperous area of the country, there is significant poverty," explained Bishop Michael F. Burbidge after he blessed the Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington's new Alexandria regional office Jan. 5. "There are people who are hungry every day, every night – not knowing where their next meal is coming from. And so, it's our sacred duty to kind of wake people up a little bit, and say, 'No – if we're really looking, the need is apparent.'"

The new regional office – which includes an expanded food pantry and emergency financial assistance services – opened at a time when casual observers might expect the economic gaps apparent during COVID to be mended.

They aren't.

An estimated 200,000-plus people remain food insecure in the Arlington Diocese, which encompasses 21 counties and seven cities. Three food pantries and a warehouse serve the hungry.

More than 59,000 food requests were made during the last year, $2.2 million in food was distributed, and Christ House shelter served 17,627 free evening meals.

"When we tell people within the last year there's been a 40% increase in the number of people served – that's a significant number," Bishop Burbidge said. "Sometimes you get the word out by numbers – the pounds of food that have been delivered. So the good news is that there is a more spacious place to serve even more people. But the sad reality is, the need is just as great, too."

Synodality, Bishop Burbidge shared, is essential in serving the poor.

"Even though we may have good intentions, if it comes from above – 'We want to do good works, and this is what we're going to do' – it may not be the most effective way of serving. So it must begin with that synodality, that listening," he explained. "What are the needs – the most critical needs – at this point? And when you hear from the people you're trying to help, then you're going to be more effective."

"When people come into this place," Bishop Burbidge said of the food pantry, "one of the things that respects the dignity of the human person is that they get a cart – and they choose. That helps uplift the dignity of the person."

Mississippi – according to the Mississippi Food Network – "has the worst hunger problem in America." The charity reports almost one in six Mississippians – about 480,600 people – don't have enough to eat, while more than one in five children (18.8%) frequently go to bed hungry.

Those are all-too-familiar statistics to Chamon Williams, community services manager at Catholic Charities in the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, which includes 65 of the state's 82 counties.

"We're always looking for different solutions or resources to support the community," Williams said.

One solution to senior hunger in Natchez – a little over 100 miles from Jackson – is a partnership between Catholic Charities and the Basilica of St. Mary. Each month, seniors in need are offered a box that includes such food staples as meat, vegetables, fruit, sugar, flour and more. An average of 40 boxes are distributed monthly.

"Because they are on a fixed income," Williams explained, "the likelihood of many of these individuals receiving SNAP benefits – or even receiving SNAP benefits that would allow them to buy all of the staples that they need on a monthly basis – may be slim, based on their income." SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the largest federal food assistance program to people with low incomes.

It's an awful paradox – numerous of the box recipients are just well enough off, in the government's assessment, to not receive comprehensive food assistance, but are not well enough off to cover combined costs of rent, medicine and food.

While "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," those who live in (rather than simply visit) Las Vegas, the most populous city in Nevada, struggle with more than just the lure of the Strip and its casinos. More than 274,000 Southern Nevadans – including one in six children – experienced food insecurity in 2023.

Deacon Tom Roberts – president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada – is uniquely qualified to identify with the needs of his community. During a 30-plus-year executive career in the gaming industry, he was ordained a deacon for the then-Diocese of Las Vegas (now an archdiocese). When his predecessor at Catholic Charities – Msgr. Patrick Leary – died unexpectedly, Deacon Roberts was asked to step in.

He's been there ever since.

"I like to say, 'Our clients never expected to be here, and neither did I,'" Deacon Roberts shared, noting Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada has dealt with a "dramatic" rise in food insecurity in the last decade.

The numbers Deacon Roberts cites underscore that assertion: almost 2,500 meals on wheels delivered per day to senior citizens, with another 1,000 on a waiting list; 500-600 community meals served daily; and 150 daily visitors to the community food pantry, open five days per week.

"There's more need than ever," sighed Deacon Roberts, who – even as CEO – continues to help deliver meals. Sometimes, what he encounters still has the capacity to shock.

"I'd see the dishes that our food comes in on the floor," Deacon Roberts recalled, "and I'd say, 'Why is your dish on the ground? Didn't you like the food?' And they'd say, 'No, deacon – we're sharing our food with our pets.'"

"And so I'd go out in my car and cry," the deacon reflected, "and then we started to put donated pet food on our delivery run. Hundreds of our seniors now are as excited and grateful for the food that feeds their companion, so they're not having to share their food with that pet. It's been a complete eye-opener for me."

Deacon Roberts adds, "They're having to make that sad decision of, 'Can I afford my rent and my medicine, or do I have food?'"

At the free daily community meal, Deacon Roberts said, "so many of these people we're serving in that dining room every day are homeless – or as they get towards the end of the month, they just run out of money. Families come in – it breaks my heart to see families and little ones come in."

Other resources also are available at mealtime, with Deacon Roberts' staff and volunteers on the lookout to "connect the dots for people."

"Help and hope" is their mission, according to Deacon Roberts – optimism and assistance for all.

"I like to say we don't check religious ID cards around here," Deacon Roberts said. "So anybody that needs help and hope can get it."


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