Cleveland Ward 17 groups team up on emergency food pantry to take care of most vulnerable#COVID-19

Editor's note: After this story was published, the food pantry's schedule was reduced to Saturdays only due to a shortage of volunteers.

Rev. Jason Thompson, senior pastor of West Park United Church of Christ, recently oversaw the expansion of the church’s emergency food pantry—expanded to accommodate the expected increased need from the most recent SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) cuts.

An estimated 3,935 of Ward 17’s 25,302 residents live in poverty, according to the Center for Community Solutions, and 13.7% receive SNAP benefits.

Then, on March 10, COVID-19 hit Northeast Ohio. As the number of cases has rapidly grown over the past week, Pastor Jason teamed up with Cleveland City Council Ward 17 Councilman Charles Slife and West Park Kamm’s Neighborhood Development Executive Director Rosemary Mudry to make sure the most vulnerable residents in Ward 17 are cared for.

Recipients, whether coming to the pantry or through the delivery service, will receive a bag with a week’s worth—about $25­—of food.The three organizations worked together to open the church’s emergency food pantry to all who need it, as well as start an emergency food delivery program to Ward 17 residents who are seniors, have underlying health issues, have the virus, or are told to shelter-in-place.

“This will be an ongoing effort until the time when our world begins to come back to normal and businesses start to open,” says Thompson. The church is closed for services because of COVID-19, he says, but the congregants are not forgotten. “Although we’ve closed, we need to continue serving God’s people.”

Thompson says a $5,000 emergency grant from the Deaconess Foundation helped get the emergency delivery started, paired with about $2,000 the church has already raised in private food pantry donations.

Recipients, whether coming to the pantry or through the delivery service, will receive a bag with a week’s worth—about $25­—of food. Households with multiple people will receive additional bags of food for each member of the household, Thompson says.

Deliveries start Saturday, March 21, and will continue every Saturday until the pandemic is over. The food pantry is open from 9 a.m. to noon Saturdays.

Slife says he’s identified at least 700 Ward 17 residents who are over 80 years old—500 of whom live alone in single-family homes or apartments. He says he’s been trying to get word out to these residents that food assistance is available.

“We have an underlying concern for a large segment of our population,” he says. “Older people aren’t always on social media, so we’re printing flyers and dropping them in their mailboxes or hand-delivering them.”

Slife says he thought about personally offering to make grocery runs for vulnerable, home-bound people but realized it was a monumental offering. After talking to Thompson, he says he felt relieved to have a plan in place.

“He really leaned into the problem,” Slife says of Thompson. “He said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to do.’”

Mudry says she was equally pleased to come together with the church to get the emergency delivery service going. “This is an opportunity for organizations to step up and showcase what coming together looks like in a real way,” she says. “This is a time where we can show how these groups can work together—and those relationships can carry over in times of less crisis.”

However, while the grant covered the costs of getting the deliveries up and running, Thompson says they are in dire need of cash donations and volunteers. “For a bag of food delivered, if you’re able, donate $25 or more,” Thompson says. “If you’re not able, that’s fine too. If you don’t need food but can donate, please do.”

Thompson says they will accept any donation, no matter the size. “What we need from the community is money,” he says. Checks can be mailed directly to the church, 3909 Rocky River Drive, Cleveland, 44111. Credit card donations can be made through West Park Kamm’s Corners Neighborhood Development here.

“We trust, and I trust God enough, that this will work out and this community will fund us,” Thompson says.

The emergency food delivery program is only open to Ward 17 residents with qualifying circumstances. “Because of the scale of this crisis, we have to limit our deliveries to those who need it,” Thompson says. “We’re doing this so they don’t have to leave their homes unnecessarily.”

Delivery orders must be made by Thursday for delivery the following Saturday. Thompson says they will try to accommodate special requests, but he can’t make promises. A list of food items is available here.

To order groceries, email the church office or call 216-671-7228 between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday. Deliveries will be made from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.

The pantry is open to anyone who needs food assistance Wednesdays and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. Recipients will have to provide their names, ZIP code, and number of people in the household to receive food. Thompson stresses the information is only for metric tracking.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the church will be providing curbside service, as the church is closed. Volunteers will come out to the cars, take orders and return with bags of food. “We will try to take requests,” he says. “If we’re not swamped, we’ll try to accommodate.”

They still need volunteers, Thompson says. No more than five people will be in the pantry at one time, and all safety precautions will be taken. Guests are asked to keep their windows closed, and Thompson says he is the only person who will make contact with the drivers, while two volunteers are assisting outside.

Delivery drivers are needed as well and must have GPS capabilities. The drivers will not enter people’s homes, but residents must be home when the delivery is made.

Thompson says they are planning for up to six weeks of curbside service and delivery. Volunteers must be under age 60 and in good health with no underlying conditions. Call the church office at 216-671-7228 to volunteer

In fact, everyone involved in this effort is optimistic that the community will come together to help those in Ward 17 who need it most. “I’m hoping it gives people a reason to donate and participate,” Slife says. “We’re going to make it happen.”

Even though West Park UCC is temporarily closed for services and activities because of COVID-19, Thompson reminds people that Sunday services are being held online through Facebook at 10:30 a.m., or click here for more information on viewing.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.