Teaming Up to Feed Families in Silver Spring, MD through the Pandemic

Greater Washington D.C.  | September 16, 2020
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Nearly 30 volunteers from 3 organizations worked together for the first time to pack and distribute food for families. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Written by Jiali Tsai
Translated by Penny Liu
Edited by Dilber Shatursun

Seeing the impact the large-scale impacts the COVID-19 pandemic has had on its local community, Tzu Chi Greater Washington DC Regional volunteers began planning a grocery giveaway in Silver Spring, MD, to help families in need put food on the table during this turbulent time.

As soon as plans were set, volunteers scoured local markets to find fresh and affordable grocery items including rice, cooking oil, flour, and beans. Tzu Chi volunteers living in Maryland and across the way in Virginia communicated with each other constantly to compare prices and make purchases quickly. Many stores were already limiting the quantity of food customers could buy, but nevertheless, volunteers were able to procure 1,000 lbs. of rice, 1,000 lbs. of flour, 200 bottles of cooking oil, and many other food items in one short week.

Tzu Chi volunteer Rui Hung Tsai carefully removes blemishes from produce donated by grocers. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Still, it has been difficult to source certain items during the pandemic. For example, for many Ethiopian families who live nearby, lentil bean powder is a pantry staple. However, it stands at five times the price of wheat flour! To show their support of these families, Tzu Chi volunteers still decided to buy them. However, after they were unable to find the lentil powder at any store,  volunteer shoppers were ready to give up.

But, working side by side with local organizations proved incredibly valuable. The day before the distribution, Ken Flemmer, the Executive Director of Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington, notified Tzu Chi volunteers that he had procured the lentil bean powder! What’s more, he was able to provide additional vegetables and fruits to supplement what Tzu Chi had. Serving the community was truly a team effort.

I thought this would be a real good opportunity to expand into a whole new group because at the time my food supplies were a little bit short, and when you offered to put boxes together, I thought ‘okay, let’s make this happen.

Ken Flemmer, Executive Director, Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington
Executive Director of Tzu Chi’s Greater Washington DC Region, Frank Chen, presents a thank you gift to Ken Flemmer of the Adventist Community Services of Greater Washington. Photo/Wendy Tsai

On July 11, 2020, Tzu Chi DC volunteers arrived one hour early at the Adventist Community Services Center to set up. Ken had already laid out the produce items the Adventist Community Services was providing. Items provided by Tzu Chi were arranged at the other side of the driveway so volunteers could load from both sides. Every family could receive two boxes of food: one box of dried goods from Tzu Chi and another of produce from Adventist Community Services – all totaling 67 lbs of food.

Tzu Chi volunteers transfer goods on the day-of. Photo/Wendy Tsai
Tzu Chi volunteer Zhang Wen Long introduces Tzu Chi to those waiting for groceries. Photo/Wendy Tsai

This food distribution allowed for a drive-thru method, giving way for care recipients to acquire their groceries from the safety of their own cars and minimizing contact between them and volunteers. There was also a curbside pickup option for those without vehicles. This gave Tzu Chi volunteers the chance to chat with those in line from a safe, social distance and introduce Tzu Chi and its mission. The distribution itself would begin at 3 PM, after the hot noon sun.

Longtime Tzu Chi volunteer Jiali Tsai registers incoming care recipients in Silver Spring, MD. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Regardless, all care recipients underwent a brief registration and verification process. Tzu Chi volunteers Jiali Tsai and local volunteer Hamrawit Tesfa worked together to do this. At the same time, volunteers distributed face masks and discussed the importance and benefits of vegetarian eating with those waiting in line. After all this, cars would be ushered ahead and volunteers loaded two boxes of food directly into the car to reduce physical interactions.

Volunteers loaded boxes of food into arriving vehicles. Photo/Wendy Tsai
Frank Chen presents another gift to volunteer Hamrawit Tesfa (left), part of Maryland’s growing Ethiopian community. Photo/Wendy Tsai

Finally, at the distribution’s end, volunteers from all organizations got together to share their experiences. They each vowed to continue helping their neighbors in need.

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