A typical box of food that the needy receive during a Catholic Charities' food distribution. (Photo provided)
A typical box of food that the needy receive during a Catholic Charities' food distribution. (Photo provided)

The rains stopped but the people kept coming. By car and on foot, as the humidity hung in the air, people needed food. We were there to provide it and we did — 26 tons, gone in under three hours.

Late last month, Catholic Charities’ CC Move program took its drive-thru food pantry to Albany’s South End, maybe the city’s poorest and most neglected area. The pandemic has only made things worse.

This was Catholic Charities’ 24th such food distribution since the pandemic hit in mid-March. Whether in Albany, Troy, the Mohawk Valley, Columbia County or the Diocese’s western end in Sidney, we’ve seen long lines and heavy demand.

Blessed with some pandemic-driven extra time, I began volunteering at the food distributions shortly after the economy was shut down to “flatten the curve.”

Meanwhile, hunger spiked.

All last year, Catholic Charities’ food drops served a total of 5,366 people. After COVID hit, we blew through that number in 27 days.

Through July, we’ve served nearly 40,600 mouths — almost enough to fill Citi Field, where my New York Mets play. By the time you hold this issue of The Evangelist in your hands, we’ll be nearing Carrier Dome numbers.

By the way, I say “we” because this work is done by each one of us in the sprawling Albany Diocese — supported by your financial contributions to Catholic Charities, strengthened by your volunteerism, uplifted by your prayers, and in line with Jesus’ command to “feed my sheep.” (John 21:17).

The sight of people queuing up for hours reminded me of those old black-and-white photos of Great Depression-era bread lines.

But instead of downtrodden men in heavy overcoats shuffling their feet in search of a meal, we see cars driven by parents, kids in car seats, seniors with oxygen tanks, weathered men in Vietnam Veterans caps, couples of all ages, people doubling up because only one of them has wheels, folks by themselves, people picking up for multiple families, and more.

One morning in Johnstown, I met a former trucker with a one-eyed dog he’d gotten from the pound. He said the pooch had been abused by a previous owner, but he also suggested life had kicked him around a little too. They were both friendlier than I’d be sitting around for an hour to get groceries.

Many know the drill all too well.

Roll down your window and pop the trunk please? How many families? How many in each family? And ZIP code please — just for record keeping. Volunteers chat ’em up a bit, wave to the kids, and thank people for their patience. Boxes are loaded and on they go with a “God bless you” generally going both ways.

People either walk up or wait in cars, sometimes for an hour or more, to receive hefty shares of produce, frozen meat, milk, eggs, cereal, soup, beans and more. Not a food group left out.

And as long as supplies last, not a soul gets left out either — no matter who you are, where you’re from, what kind of car you drive, or even it’s your second trip through the line (anyone who does that deserves seconds because the line gets long).
In the words of Catholic Charities’ Director of Community Partnerships Sister Betsy Van Deusen, CSJ, we don’t judge and we don’t question because hunger doesn’t discriminate.

Sister Betsy leads CC Move and spearheads the drive-thru food pantry efforts. In her neon yellow t-shirt, khaki baseball cap and distinctive voice, she’s easy to spot but hard to corner. She’s in constant motion — packing food, clearing snags, dragging tables and leading the opening prayer. Energy must be her middle name.

“Somehow it always works,” Sister Betsy often says. I joke that she took four vows — chastity, poverty, obedience … and clairvoyance.

July’s South End distribution was the third at this location, in the parking lot outside the (aptly named for this sticky day) Steamboat Square Apartments and the local offices of the social service non-profit Centro Civico.

Word must have gotten around because this one was the busiest. Lines of cars wrapped around the building and stretched both ways on the piece of Green Street that connects the neighborhood to the Port of Albany. The Albany police officers earned their pay keeping traffic moving.

Near the end, after the rains had come and gone, a woman drove up apologizing because it was her second time. She said she was allergic to the bananas she’d gotten earlier but she’d noticed we had plums and could she maybe get some. By now that was all we had left. We gave her 30 or so.

“Oh thank you, thank you,” she said. And then she added weeping to her thanking before slowly pulling away, tears rolling down her cheeks.

I don’t know this woman’s life or her pressures or her pain, but she allowed me to witness the kind of deep response people in need can have to a simple act of unexpected kindness. In the days since, I realize those two minutes opened my eyes to what Jesus meant by a parable I’ve been hearing since first grade.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matt 13:31-32)

By the time our morning’s work in the South End was over, we’d served 2,469 people in 714 households, with 26 tons of food. Down to the last plum.

Robert J. Bellafiore serves on the Albany Diocese Catholic Charities Board of Trustees. He lives in Delmar with his wife, Marilyn.