North Shore houses of worship respond to COVID-era food security concerns

The pews were emptied in order to keep everyone safe, though stomachs still needed to be filled.

While houses of worship have successfully turned to the online realm in order to offer salvation and spirituality in the age of physical distancing, it’s been just as important to make sure congregants and members of the public at large who are still in need of the odd meal or food item have access to the necessary nourishment, according to at least one North Shore minister.

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St. Andrew’s United Church transitioned easily to hosting its congregation and services through a weekly livestream in the era of COVID-19, but it was more of a challenge to make sure its food programs didn’t fall victim to the virus as well, according to Rev. Judith Hardcastle.

“Food security is a big issue,” says Hardcastle. “That’s why we started again as quickly as we could.”

For years, the North Vancouver church has hosted a free community lunch every Thursday which has routinely drawn in between 70 and 80 people, in addition to a drop-in bread program.

Whether it was regular congregants of the church or someone passing by on the street, a wide swath of people – from families, seniors, or people experiencing homelessness, to those living with disabilities or going through tough financial times – could be expected to drop by every week to enjoy a bowl of soup and a sandwich as well as receive some much-needed companionship, according to Hardcastle.

But like most facets of society, that all came to a halt on March 12 due to novel coronavirus.

“We suddenly were all working from home. I was lost. Now I’m a minister without a flock,” she remembers feeling.

While Hardcastle knew it would be awhile before she would be able to conduct an in-person service again, she was committed to jump-starting the church’s food service program as soon as possible, at least in some form or another.

After consulting with Vancouver Coastal Health to find out how they could safely resume some sort of community meal program, St. Andrew’s launched a meal-to-go program where people could pick up a dinner, dessert and a loaf of bread back in April.

Last month, the church re-launched an express version of its lunch program providing those in need with a soup and sandwich.

And this month, the church is slated to resume what’s referred to as its “bread ministry” – a weekly partnership with Cobs Bread where staff distribute unsold bread goods for anyone who needs it, says Hardcastle.

After launching its takeaway food program, more than 60 people lined up during that first day while maintaining physical distancing, she says.

“We had a maximum of four people at a time come into the kitchen,” says Hardcastle.

In the era of COVID-19, food security has become a pertinent issue. In the early months of March and April, many non-profit organizations and charities that have food programs had to find creative ways to reach out to their usual clients and provide services.

It’s been no different for many churches, religious institutions and houses of worship, many of which provide those kinds of services as well, according to Hardcastle.

“We welcome everyone,” she says. “That’s where food banks original started – in the church basements.”

St. Andrew’s staff also manage 16 community gardens along St. Georges Avenue, four of which are gardened by volunteers at St. Andrew’s to use in the church’s own food programs.

Although Sunday in-person worship currently isn’t taking place at the church, St. Andrew’s has opened its sanctuary area to the public, from Monday to Friday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m., for open prayer and meditation.

Visit st-andrews-united.ca for more information about COVID-era food programs and church services.

Asked why she felt so compelled to re-start their food programs when the pandemic came swiftly into people’s lives, Hardcastle says it’s an essential part of their ministry.

“This lunch is known to people who live in the area,” she says. “When you welcome your neighbour, you provide hospitality and you feed them.”

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