"FUEL" partners form food supply chain for children and families during pandemic school closures

In 2017, when members of the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill heard stories of school nurses and counselors keeping non-perishable food items in the trunks of their cars for kids who didn’t get enough food on the weekends, they decided to partner with the Centre Street Food Pantry in Newton to form a program called FUEL that would provide weekend food for students who rely on free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches at school during the week. 

300 backpacks Courtesy Photo Three hundred backpacks filled with food for children and families in need, lined up at the Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill.

As of the fall of 2019, FUEL had partnered with Newton public schools, St. Stephen's Youth Programs (SSYP) at St. Stephen’s Church in Boston and the Epiphany School in Dorchester--providing roughly 30-35 backpacks filled with non-perishable food and snacks each week to each partner to distribute to children in need. Members of the Church of the Redeemer who wished to volunteer to help with the program were invited to help shop for and sort large quantities of food, pack the bags of food and contribute financially as they were able.

This year, when schools in Massachusetts closed for the remainder of the school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Church of the Redeemer called around to see what it could do to continue to help, and found that many of its school partners offered to deliver bags of food to the children and their families who need them, now more than ever.

The challenge now was that many stores limited the purchases of items to two per person, so no longer could they purchase the needed non-perishables in bulk, as had been their practice. What they needed was a community of individuals who could help purchase or order online the items two at a time--and so the church has been asking its members to do just that, as they are able.

“The idea that the food logistical infrastructure has been completely upended is going to require us as a community of faith to respond to it in ways that are so local, and so direct, because it’s all we’re going to have capacity for,” said the Rev. Mike Dangelo, the rector of the Church of the Redeemer, in an interview. “I’m part of a privileged parish. We have been given so much, and to be able to do this with people who have a deep desire and hope to make a difference in the world in Christ’s name has been a Godsend, thanks to a remarkable group of lay people who have made this a commitment.”

In addition to recruiting help from members of the parish, Redeemer has contacted other nearby Episcopal churches, and St. Andrew’s Church in Wellesley and All Saints Parish in Brookline have both signed on to help with the project. Wendy Wheeler coordinates the outreach at All Saints Parish, and explained in an e-mail that All Saints hopes to collect donations, deliver them to the Church of the Redeemer and then help pack the bags at safe physical distances.

“As people of faith, we feel a strong desire to live out our calling to help those in need, even as we currently face greater restrictions to doing so,” Wheeler said. “The FUEL program will allow our parish to support local families who are facing incredible pressure right now.”

Velura Perry is the coordinator of the FUEL program at the Church of the Redeemer and said in a phone interview that she has been encouraged and inspired by her community stepping up to help support the program in this time when it is more necessary than ever--as children aren’t getting meals at school during the week, and many households are losing income as guardians lose jobs due to the pandemic.

“It’s a blessing for us as much as it is a good thing to be providing food for people,” Perry said. “There’s a tremendous sense for me and I think for many of our volunteers that we are doing Jesus’ work. He says, ‘Feed the hungry, take care of the children,’ and so that’s really what we’re trying to do. 

“We can’t do it all. Every once in a while, personally, I bump into that issue--you can’t save everybody, you can’t feed everybody, but we can do our small part here and perhaps inspire other people to do that as well.”

--Bridget K. Wood