SOME THINGS I SAW AT THE PANDEMIC
James Taylor once sang “Damn, this traffic jam,” and it resonates. I can’t stand traffic. To me, even a line of cars at the CVS drive-thru is like sunlight to Dracula. I’ll come back later.
My fellow Type-A’ers in New York’s government-industrial complex maybe can relate. Line at the Capitol Dunkin’ Donuts? Didn’t really need that skinny hazelnut swirl macchiato anyway.
After volunteering these last few months at food distributions run by the Albany Diocese’s Catholic Charities’ “CC Move” program – and seeing long lines of people sitting patiently in their vehicles for an hour or more to get a box of groceries – I’m reassessing my Queens-ish watch-tapping attitude.
First the observations.
In Johnstown in early May, 300 cars clogged a parking lot, making it look more like the line for Space Mountain during school break than a strip mall in Fulton County, NY. This was while volunteers were still unloading and packing up the 12 tons of food brought by the Regional Food Bank of Northeast New York.
A week later, 225 cars snaked through parking lots in Albany’s Pine Hills and then stretched seven football fields toward downtown until they crossed Ontario Street. I was glad the Albany PD was there to manage it.
In Fort Plain a week after that, more than 125 cars pulled over on Route 80, from Our Lady of Hope Church past Otsquaco Creek, and sat for 45 minutes. On old maps, the creek is called “Otsquage,” which is Native American for “healing waters.” The juxtaposition fit.
On that Johnstown morning I met a former trucker with a one-eyed dog he’d gotten from the pound. He said the pooch had been abused by a previous owner, but he also suggested life had kicked him around a little too. They were both friendlier than I’d probably be in that situation.
At Centro Civico in Amsterdam this month, a thoughtful mom and daughter came back to return meat they would not eat (for religious purposes), knowing someone else would want it. At that same site a few weeks earlier, 1,000 households came through at the same site, picking up food for 2,300 people. The local National Guard provided the muscle.
This past Tuesday in Albany’s South End, 559 families showed up in the sun and humidity, 300 of them on foot.
Now the killer fact: All last year, Catholic Charities food drops served 5,366 people total. After COVID hit in March, they blew through that number in 27 days.
OK, my old AP boss Marc Humbert might tell me, you buried the lede. And he’d be right.
Except perhaps for the most committed quants, rare is the human who hits the pillow at night contemplating a data point. More likely, it’s a face or place that people can’t get out of their heads.
Cars come driven by parents with kids in car seats, seniors with oxygen tanks, weathered men in Vietnam Veterans caps, couples of all ages, people doubling up because only one of them has a car, folks by themselves. Many have been through this drill many times.
They are the weary but also the well dressed, like they’re heading someplace. Plenty of vehicles pass my “Volvo test,” ie, could easily be in a country club parking lot. Maybe they’re picking up for someone else. Or maybe COVID-related hunger doesn’t discriminate.
Some folks come through the line more than once, switching drivers out of fear they’d be turned away as double dippers. A word to them – don’t sweat it.
This isn’t intended as a polemic against the costs of the COVID-19 shutdown. But the images of people waiting for groceries from strangers bluntly illustrate what it’s meant to families in the Albany region and no doubt across the state.
This year, CC Move has distributed more than 420,000 pounds of food. That’s a lot of lettuce … and eggs, milk, fruit, juice, vegetables, pasta, meat, potatoes and canned goods, all supplied by the Regional Food Bank.
This isn’t government surplus cheese. It’s the product of local people supporting neighbors – through donations to Catholic Charities and the Food Bank, taxpayer-funded programs, local non-profits, volunteering, and more.
Hunger is nothing new. Even pre-COVID, food pantries at places like St. Vincent de Paul Church in Albany and the Rourke Center in Troy have seen need grow sharply. Regardless of how communities recover from the pandemic, this is one curve that doesn’t appear to be flattening any time soon.
Robert J. Bellafiore serves on the Albany Diocese Catholic Charities Board of Directors and is founder of Stanhope Partners.