With grocery shelves emptying at an alarming rate, more and more otherwise financially secure families are coming to understand what it means to live in a state of food insecurity.

Service agencies are practicing social distancing even as they continue ministering to the vulnerable in our society. (Submitted photo)

For the guests served by meal programs and direct service ministries throughout the archdiocese, anxiety over access to food and basic amenities isn’t anything new.

“Even before this crisis, people were food-scarce, people were housing insecure, people were scarce on resources,” said MacCanon Brown of the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary, which ministers to the residents of Milwaukee’s 53206 zip code.

But the coronavirus crisis, said Brown, has made many of her clients’ needs “more gripping.”

“The people who have consumer power have emptied the grocery shelves. Our people don’t have consumer power and many of them don’t have transportation,” she said.

It’s a situation that makes the outreach ministries provided by organizations like the MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary even more critical. And though hygiene and social distancing protocols arising in response to the coronavirus crisis mean that many programs have to adjust their routine, it doesn’t mean their missions are stopping.

Far from it, says Br. Robert Wotypka, director of Capuchin Community Services, which operates the House of Peace and the St. Ben’s community meal.

“Hundreds, maybe tens of thousands, of households in the weeks to come may be losing paychecks,” he said. “They’ll need help, and I believe we’ll be ready to provide the help.”

MacCanon Brown Homeless Sanctuary: Consider yourself hugged

 At the best of times, said Brown, the 53206 zip code is considered to be a food desert. “The people don’t have supermarkets, they don’t have quick stops,” she said. Aside from a few greasy fast-food joints and small retail stores with high prices, there are very few options for food.

So the MBHS had been focusing on food production even before the virus hit, trying to get healthy eating options to their clients. That hasn’t stopped — it just looks a bit different than before. With their temporary site of the last five years, Hephatha Lutheran Church, closed indefinitely due to the virus, the sanctuary’s free Friday meal program (which included a host of other direct services) and Sunday clothing distribution have been suspended.

But their doorway ministry, operated out of the back door of their Center Street facility every Tuesday and Thursday, is still going strong. Brown said she even called Mayor Tom Barrett’s office to confirm that they are deemed an essential service, and so, with necessary precautions, they are going forward. On a recent Tuesday night, they served 100 people.

Guests of the doorway ministry get fresh produce and other essential items. Volunteers wear gloves and sometimes face masks; people in line are asked to stand 6 feet apart and only eight guests are allowed inside at any time. Hand sanitizer must be used immediately on entering the building.

The biggest challenge posed by the new protocols, said Brown, is that they can’t hug one another.

“We’re a hugging group,” she said. “So instead, we just cross our hands on our chest and nod and smile and say, ‘Consider yourself hugged.’”

How to help: The MBHS is in need of donations, which can be made at the back door of their building at 2416 W. Center St. with minimal contact. Foods urgently needed include: canned beef and chicken, sardines, Vienna sausages, canned yams, green beans, baked beans, corn, chicken noodle or chicken dumpling soup, hand sanitizer, boxes of cereal, energy bars, bars of soap, other basic hygiene products and toilet paper.

Capuchin Community Services: Always ready for a crisis

 Since they operate a warming center when temperatures reach dangerously cold levels, the staff and volunteers at Capuchin Community Services have a lot of experience with preparing for an emergency need on very short notice.

With the dangerous cold mostly behind us, they hadn’t expected to draw on those quick-thinking skills in mid-March. But when the coronavirus crisis began to peak early in the month, they found themselves suddenly suspending several key services, asking volunteers to stay home and having to reimagine their signature community meal.

At their House of Peace site on West Walnut Street, the only ministries currently in operation are the Strong Baby Sanctuary and the emergency food pantry, which offers curbside service. To help alleviate the stress put on staff members now that the volunteer force is gone, teams rotate shifts, making for longer hours but shorter weeks.

Br. Robert said that they have been serving households outside of their usual two zip codes since this crisis began. “We’re serving everyone who comes,” he said. “Many food pantries in the city are on a volunteer basis and those volunteers have also been suspended. We welcome anyone who comes to the door. We are serving far, far more people.”

At the St. Ben’s community meal site on West State Street, in-hall dining was suspended as of March 17, and they have transitioned to a takeaway meal model, averaging about 180 per night.

The food for the meal is typically provided by parishes and other partner organizations, and they have had to make adjustments to comply with new Department of Health requirements that mandate that food must be prepared on-site. “For example, the parish that comes in next week that used to make Salisbury steaks and bring them will now just be able to drop off the steaks in their commercial packaging and we will prepare it here at the meal hall,” said Br. Robert.

Like Brown, Br. Robert said that the most difficult part of the changes was the temporary loss of what they call “the ministry of presence.” The magic of a St. Ben’s community meal was to be found not only in the food itself, but in the fellowship created in the dining hall — volunteers and guests eating together, talking, watching the evening news.

“It really weighed heavy on my heart when people would ask me, ‘Where am I supposed to go? Where am I supposed to eat?’” said Br. Robert. “And I would have to say, ‘I don’t know — it’s not safe to open the meal hall.’”

How to help: Because staffing hours have gone up, financial support to help sustain the payroll. To donate, visit

All Saints Catholic Church

 An expense that the All Saints Parish meal program didn’t expect this spring? Styrofoam takeout containers.

Like St. Ben’s, All Saints has always made fellowship the centerpiece of their hot meal ministry. They began each meal in their large, restaurant-grade parish hall with a prayer and the daily Scripture reading, and guests used real plates and utensils. Most of their guests are single men from local recovery programs and residents of the neighborhood, said All Saints director of outreach Rosemary Murphy.

After the initial concerns about the spread of the virus emerged in early March, they allowed diners to come into the dining room, accept their food and leave. “I thought that was going to be really slick,” said Murphy.

But these days, the operation has been moved to the church parking lot. The hot meal program itself has been suspended until after Holy Week, at which point they will re-evaluate when to resume services. If nothing has changed, they will return to the take-out model.

“People are reluctant to come out — many of our volunteers are elderly and they’ve chosen to stay home, which I think is wise,” she said. “The volunteers who do come out are getting pretty tired.”

Though she said she has not noticed an uptick in the numbers of guests, she is certainly aware of an increasing need.

“We know the needs are great — I constantly get calls for assistance,” she said. “And we know the people that are coming are very, very appreciative.”