In April of 2020, toward the beginning of the pandemic, Jewish Volunteer Connection hoped to collect up to 250 meals for those facing food insecurity through a one-time, community-wide Bunches of Lunches drive. After receiving more than 1,800 meals on the first day, staff saw the potential to fill the new need in the community. Bunches of Lunches became one of the first efforts by agencies of The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore to respond to food insecurity during the pandemic.
Over the past year, between March 2020 and May 15, 2021, while the pandemic was causing unheard-of financial and nutritional hardship, The Associated and its agencies provided more than 137,000 meals and boxes of food to those facing food insecurity, The Associated said.
Much of the effort was led by Associated agencies such as Jewish Volunteer Connection and the Pearlstone Center.
Before the pandemic, Pearlstone commonly served meals to up to 20,000 retreat guests a year, said Eve Wachhaus, Pearlstone’s deputy director. As such, Pearlstone was better prepared than many to help provide emergency food relief.
When the shelter-in-place order was issued in March 2020, Baltimore City public school students lost access to free or reduced meals for a week, Wachhaus said. Partnering with the mayor’s office, Pearlstone provided 2,000 meals for them in a span of two days.
Staff soon recognized the critical role Pearlstone could play in providing for the food insecure during the pandemic, Wachhaus explained. Pearlstone’s farm staff redoubled their efforts, while its culinary team refocused on emergency food response. Since the pandemic’s start, Pearlstone’s farms have provided 36,000 people with certified organic vegetables and fruits, including blueberries, tomatoes, lettuce and kale, in partnership with emergency food responders like the Maryland Food Bank.
As for prepared meals, Pearlstone has served over 75,000 meals through partners such as Jewish Community Services and Baltimore Gift Economy, Wachhaus said.
“When you combine the meals and the farm produce, both lovingly prepared, Pearlstone has helped more than 116,000 people facing food insecurity in our community,” Wachhaus said. “It’s an honor, a mitzvah, to be able to connect to so many people in our community in this critical way.”
JVC has also played an integral part of The Associated’s efforts, JVC Executive Director Ashley Pressman said. JVC did this primarily through three separate programs: Bunches of Lunches, Casserole Challenge and the Soup Kits program.
Bunches of Lunches, Pressman explained, actually began 10 years before the pandemic, with students from schools like Krieger Schechter Day School bringing a bagged meal with them to be donated. The program grew during the pandemic and has since become a community-wide effort. Volunteers now prepare meals that might include a sandwich, a bag of chips, a fruit, a water bottle and some kind of sweet treat.
JVC has now been running the program each week since April of 2020, distributing as many as 60,000 meals to different nonprofit organizations who give them to the food insecure, the homeless and those in senior housing, Pressman said.
Meanwhile, since the start of the pandemic, the JVC’s Casserole Challenge has provided nonprofits serving the food insecure with more than 1,000 casseroles, Pressman said, while its Soup Kit program has provided school partners with kits containing soup ingredients.
Through such food relief programs, organizations like The Associated, Pearlstone and JVC have been providing the community’s food insecure with, as Wachhaus put it, “dignity and respect through every quart of soup.”