Life

Coronavirus Diaries: I Run a Soup Kitchen. We’ve Had to Rethink Our Whole Strategy.

Two hands holding a medical mask over an image of cans of food. In the center of the mask, the words "Coronavirus Diaries."
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by iStock/Thinkstock and Михаил Руденко/Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay from Walter Ritz, the executive director of Hope Community Services in New Rochelle, New York, has been edited and condensed for clarity from an interview with Cornelia Channing.

We are one of the largest food providers in Westchester County. On any given night, around 100 people come through our doors. They receive a hot meal when they sit down, and we try to send them home with a take-away bag for lunch the next day as well. We also have a food pantry that serves individuals and families facing food insecurity. To give you a sense of the scale we work on, last year we provided somewhere around 360,000 meals between our two programs combined. It’s a really, really, needed service in this community.

The first night after the containment zone was established in New Rochelle, a wave of panic and confusion essentially brought the city to a standstill. No one knew what was going to happen. It looked like a ghost town. People didn’t want to leave their houses. That first night, we didn’t see as many people as we normally do, which was actually quite ominous because it meant that in all likelihood those people didn’t eat that night. But over the past few days, we have seen a spike in numbers. Especially now that schools and businesses are closed, there is a lot of need. We have people knocking on our door asking for food who typically don’t ask for food. We are the last safety net for a lot of people, and we anticipate that we’ll see more and more people coming in each day. We are doing everything we can to rise to the occasion.

One of the things we did was to ask all of our volunteers that fall into the “high risk” category—meaning anyone who is immunocompromised or over the age of 60—to stay home. That has had a huge impact on us because we really rely on volunteers and most of them are older. So, right off the bat we are working with less and trying to do more. We are in the process right now of expanding our services to provide meals every day, and to have more groceries available for families who may not be able to work.

At the same time, we have to make sure that we are a safe space for both our guests and our volunteers. To avoid having people congregate in the dining room, we have shifted to a takeout model in our soup kitchen. We bought hundreds of small containers and are now packing individual hot meals for visitors to pick up outside the front door of the building. This has helped limit person-to-person contact, but it’s a very new system for us and it requires a lot more labor. We are also shifting the food pantry to a similar model, moving everything outside to minimize the number of people entering the building.

At this point, members of the homeless community are the only ones allowed inside, aside from staff, and we are taking great steps to make sure that the space and everyone inside it is disinfected. We have been wiping down every surface that we have before and after every meal, regularly cleaning all railings and doorknobs, handing out plastic gloves. We are directing everyone who comes into the building to be mindful and vigilant, to wash and sanitize their hands. Cleaning has become one of the most time-consuming parts of the job. Given how understaffed we are, it’s a big undertaking, but of course we recognize how important it is. This is all a process of adaptation.

We have been in constant communication with Feeding Westchester, the local food bank, about what is happening on the state and county level. So far, it seems that providers have been able to stay open, but there is a lot of uncertainty about what will happen in the coming weeks. Right now, our most immediate need is for monetary donations. At this point, the best way for people to help is by going to our website, and giving that way. We also have information online about our COVID-19 preparations, and we are actively updating that every day. Food and supplies, of course, are helpful, too. But giving money is the most efficient way to donate because we will be able to stretch that money out much further than anyone else could.

Things are changing by the hour here. The national guard arrived this week. No one has slept much. We are trying to be really mindful about not generating fear. There is understandable anxiety about this virus, and we want to focus on keeping people safe and informed, which requires a certain amount of calm. Whatever else happens, our goal is to make sure that no one goes hungry and that everyone who needs food is fed. We intend to keep doing that for as long as we can.