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How Tzu Chi DC Helped Feed Low-Income Families Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic

Greater Washington D.C.  |  April 3, 2020
Frank Chen, Executive Director of Tzu Chi Greater Washington D.C., gives a cash card to a care recipient whose young son is a cancer patient. Photo by Tzu Chi Greater Washington D.C.

Written by Jennifer Chien
Translated by Diana Chang
Edited by Dilber Shatursun

In early March, Tzu Chi volunteers from Tzu Chi’s Greater Washington DC Region watched the threat of COVID-19 rise across the country. They rushed to hold their final food pantry distribution on March 19 – just before stay home orders took place.

Feeding Low-Income Families in Montgomery County

Living in a part of the nation with a high wealth disparity, Tzu Chi DC volunteers have dedicated themselves to filling in the gaps in between since 1994. One way included a collaboration with the YMCA of Metropolitan DC’s charity department that began in 2006. They would work together to host food pantries for low-income families at the JoAnn Leleck Elementary School at Broad Acres, located in Silver Spring, MD. The project still continues.

Tzu Chi volunteers in the Greater Washington D.C. Region insisted on holding a final food distribution before a stay home order. Photo by Tzu Chi Greater Washington D.C.

Situated in the affluent Montgomery County, 11% of residents living in Silver Spring reportedly live below the poverty line. At its regular food pantries, Tzu Chi volunteers prepare enough food to distribute to 27 families – and that equates to 1,300 pounds of food considering a family of four. Those with large families would receive two packages. As a result, Tzu Chi Greater Washington D.C. Region’s Executive Director Frank Chen directed his team to prepare 50 sets.

As families across the US began stocking up on groceries in preparation for the COVID-19 pandemic, Tzu Chi volunteers found themselves in a bit of a bind. They couldn’t get everything they needed for the distribution from a single store. They had to think creatively and be resourceful, at a time of high demand for pantry staples and fresh produce.

Scurrying for Groceries

Tzu Chi volunteers and care recipients observed no-contact and social distancing practices to prevent infection. Photo by Tzu Chi Greater Washington D.C.

Understanding the uncertainty the upcoming pandemic would bring, Tzu Chi volunteers wanted to be sure they were providing families with enough foods to keep them afloat for some time. It took volunteers a whole two weeks to source and gather the pantry staples – like rice, beans, corn flour, pasta, pasta sauce – they would offer to these families. Truly, it was a labor of love.

Frank even took the initiative to get in touch with a manager at Panda Express – a long time supporter of Tzu Chi USA. He asked if they would be willing to sponsor 75 vegetarian meals to distribute, so families could pick them up along with their groceries. In doing this, care recipients would have the chance to try vegetarian cuisine – an initiative inspired by the Very Veggie Movement to try a vegetarian diet.

On distribution day, Tzu Chi volunteers set up their goods at the school parking lot, giving both the volunteers and care recipients plenty of space to observe social distancing practices.

Care recipients pick up groceries from Tzu Chi volunteers but from a safe distance. Photo by Tzu Chi Greater Washington D.C.

Distribution with Zero Contact

Each care package of groceries is specifically packed for the family or individual picking them up – all to adjust for quantity and ensure that each household member gets a fair share of nourishment.

Starting from the early morning, Tzu Chi volunteers parked their vehicles in the parking lot and began separating groceries right from the trunks of their cars. They were then set up on a table for the appropriate care recipient to pick it up – with zero contact between people.

Though many of the volunteers and care recipients – who have each known each other for a long time – were unable to greet as usual, distant smiles, upturned eyes, and words of gratitude were still aplenty.

In particular, this came from a care recipient named Maria, whose young son is currently undergoing cancer care at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Given her son’s critical situation, her family was receiving additional help from Tzu Chi that included financial aid. Knowing that the pandemic situation might cause dramatic changes, Frank offered her her regular cash card with not just one, but two months of aid.

Families rush to pick up foods from Tzu Chi before a stay home order goes into effect. Photo by Tzu Chi Greater Washington D.C.

For many years, the Tzu Chi Greater Washington D.C. Region has served its most vulnerable neighbors with breakfast distributions to the homeless, food pantries for low-income families, and the Great Love Respite Program – a program that gives parents of special needs children a supportive break. Despite the current pandemic situation, they will still find a way to serve.

Empower Tzu Chi volunteers like those in the Washington DC metro area with the resources to do more.

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