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‘If you can help, you should’: Assistance Center of Towson Churches preps for high demand for free Thanksgiving meals

The Assistance Center for Towson Churches has for years collected food donations in November to provide a proper Thanksgiving dinner for those who otherwise may not have one.

This year is different, like with much else.

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Food donations to the consortium of 50 churches were scarcer this year than in prior years, said longtime volunteer Gus Bengel, leaving church volunteers, who are often older adults and seniors, to lean heavily on monetary donations and grocery store trips that have added up to more than $10,000.

Churchgoers gave money instead of food, but food products at groceries, which were always difficult to come by this time of year, were even harder to find because of a higher demand, ACTC executive director Linda Lotz said.

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“Obviously with COVID, it’s been a tough year for everyone,” said Steve Sausnock-Baldwin, a member of the Loch Raven Optimist Club who brought three volunteers with him to Towson’s Trinity Episcopal Church to sort food.

“It’s even tougher for those in need,” he said.

Baltimore County’s unemployment rate was 6.9% in September, according to the most recently available state data. Feeding America, a national nonprofit that combats food insecurity, said in 2018 Baltimore County’s rate of food insecurity was 11%.

Of those food insecure families, 63% fall below 200% of the federal poverty level, according to Feeding America.

Despite the added challenges and extra coordination required this year under social-distancing edicts, the roughly 20 volunteers on Wednesday morning had the food chain running like a well-oiled machine.

Standing 6 feet apart at stations in Trinity Episcopal, volunteers sorted through thousands of pounds of food from the Halethorpe-based Maryland Food Bank, unpacking boxes to fill food bags with the traditional Thanksgiving fixings — one can of sweet potatoes or yams; two cans of meat, like chili or beef stew; cranberry sauce; stuffing mix; instant mashed potatoes; veggies; dessert, and more, totaling 16 items.

The consortium has so far amassed 3,000 meals, and the Maryland Food Bank has donated about 10,400 pounds of food for the effort, Lotz said.

The goal is to feed at least 2,500 families this year, said Pat Shaw, an 83-year-old ACTC volunteer who has spearheaded the Thanksgiving food distribution for the past five years.

The meals are meant to feed a family of five, and around 400 turkeys also will be distributed Nov. 23 and Nov. 24. Families that don’t receive a turkey will get a $10 Giant gift card.

It’s a big haul for a group that already has ramped up its year-round services, going from meal distributions every three months to doling out 800 grocery bags every two weeks.

“We’re taking a risk” because of the coronavirus, Lotz acknowledged. “We took a risk when we stayed open … But we’re very careful.”

For senior volunteers like 70-year-old Joanie Smith-Miller, feeding families in need outweighed fears over the surging number of coronavirus cases and the risks of complications posed especially for adults older than 65.

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“We’re all human, we all need to eat,” she said, pausing from dragging bags of food heavier than she can carry to the growing collection.

Laurie Taylor-Mitchell, president of the Towson-based Student Support Network, which focuses on ending food insecurity among county students, warned that food insecurity and other inequities are going to get worse with the resurgence of the coronavirus and with no federal relief money in sight.

“We are going to see increases in utility shut-offs with the cold weather coming [...] and also evictions,” she wrote in an email. “It’s going to get very bad.”

“If you can help, you should,” said Towson Del. Cathi Forbes, who volunteered Wednesday to help with the food packing.

“And I think people feel compelled to,” she said.

As masked volunteers shuffled out of the way of dolly carts laden with food packages, broke down empty boxes and deftly slipped in paper numbering the meal bags — with the number nearing 800 before 11 a.m. — Shaw milled from room to room, delegating and jumping in to assist where she could.

For Shaw, relying on her faith quells any fears about the novel virus.

“God takes care of it,” she said. She brushes off the notion of being in a vulnerable age category and jokes that she has more stamina than many others younger.

Her daughters have stopped trying to talk her out of her avid volunteering, she said.

The consortium will be handing out food — no eligibility documentation required — at Trinity Episcopal Church on Nov. 23 and Nov. 24 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The church is located at 120 Allegheny Ave.

Those who drive are asked to remain in their cars and form a drive-through, entering from Joppa Road. Items will be placed in the rear seat or trunk, and everyone picking up food must be masked.

For those without transportation or who take public transit, volunteers will have a limited supply of personal protective gear for them to wear while they pick up, Lotz said. They may enter on foot from Allegheny Avenue, and some masks also will be available for those who don’t bring one.

Last year, 2,444 Thanksgiving meals were handed out, Lotz said.

“We’ve never run out before, we’ve always had enough,” she said. “I just pray it’s the same thing this year.”

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