By LISA EISENHAUER
A weekend meal program started in March has helped to nourish families in an impoverished section of southeast Canton, Ohio, and provided a spiritual lift to the group from Mercy Medical Center behind it.
A family carries away weekend meal packages provided by Mercy Medical Center in Canton, Ohio. The hospital began the meal program this spring amid the novel coronavirus pandemic to address food insecurity in a low-income neighborhood. It is funded through a grant from the Sisters of the Humility of Mary.
The meal program began in March when the city's schools closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Sr. Carolyn Capuano, HM, vice president of mission and ministry at Mercy Medical Center. The hospital is part of Cleveland-based Sisters of Charity Health System.
"We connected with the Canton city schools when it became apparent that the schools were closing and that they were going, thankfully, to provide meals for the children Monday through Friday," Sr. Capuano said of herself and colleagues at the hospital. "We started talking about what we could we do to outreach because we had planned several minority health programs which had to be canceled."
With funding support from Sr. Capuano's congregation, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary, they settled on a meal program that would "bridge the gap for the weekends and provide nourishment to parents as well as children," she said.
Beginning in mid-March, she and others set up a table outside Allen Reading & Math Preparatory School on Fridays. When children or families came to pick up the lunches provided by the Canton City School District, Sr. Capuano and her crew offered them packages that included a main dish that only has to be warmed in an oven or microwave, and a range of other foods like bread, oatmeal, peanut butter, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Each package contains enough food to help a family of four through the weekend. Large families can have two.
Determined small duo
The meal packages are available to anyone. Most of them go to low-income families who live nearby. Sometimes those families come on foot and carry them home.
Two small brothers who come alone have been among the regulars. The first day they came, the boys picked up the school meals but were reluctant to take the weekend meal package. The older boy, who appeared to be about 6, said his father warned him not to take candy from strangers, so Sr. Capuano opened the food package to show him that there was no candy inside.
Once the boy was persuaded to accept the box, the weight of it along with the meals from the school proved too much for him and his smaller brother to manage. Tenicia James, who oversees the giveaways as mission outreach coordinator for Mercy, ended up carrying the box to the brothers' home at Skyline Terrace, a nearby public housing complex, and setting it outside the door.
"You could tell that there probably wasn't any food in their home because they were determined to get that food home," James said.
Since the school year ended, the weekend food program has continued at a site across the street from the school in collaboration with the Stark Metropolitan Housing Authority. The school district has opened other sites where children can get weekday lunches.
Nourishment and employment
The meals are prepared by Metz Culinary Management, the company that operates the cafeteria at Mercy. The contract for the meals helped the food service keep some of its workers employed after the hospital scaled back nonurgent services as part of its pandemic preparations. "I think I could hear the joy in their voices when they would talk about the different meals they wanted to plan," Sr. Capuano said of the food service workers. "They are happy to be a vital part of our outreach."
Among the most popular entrees have been pasta with meatballs and sauce and creamed chicken over biscuits, which was the one provided on Mother's Day weekend. That food package also came with flowers donated by Metz. "I thought that was a beautiful touch," said Elaine Campbell, who recalled seeing delighted children handing blooms to their mothers.
Campbell is director of Mercy Development Foundation and one of the regulars helping at the meal table every week. She is keenly aware of the need among the families who get the meals. She is Mercy's representative for a program called Canton Invest Health that has gotten funding from the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program's goal is to improve the lives of residents of southeast Canton. Mercy Medical Center is an anchor institution in the program.
Adopting an 'orphanized' area
A report by Canton Invest Health calls the southeast quadrant one of the "oldest and most challenged communities in the city."
"The neighborhoods exist in extreme poverty and are devoid of core assets that contribute to quality of health," the report says. "The area is best described in a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development "Impediments to Fair Housing" report issued in June 2015 as 'orphanized' and (as) 'an area of the city, which consists nearly exclusively of areas of black concentration, is becoming increasing isolated from amenities and services.'"
The meal packages given away by Mercy Medical Center in Canton, Ohio, are available to anyone. Each package includes enough food to feed a family of four over a weekend. The program started in March and is set to continue indefinitely. The distribution site is staffed by volunteers connected to the hospital.
Campbell noted that among the services the neighborhood lacks are grocery stores, banks and laundromats.
Sr. Capuano said that despite being located in a different section of the city, Mercy has done many outreach initiatives in southeast Canton over the last 25 years. One is an annual oral health program for families at the Allen school.
More than meals
James has ensured that the weekend meal program addresses other needs of the families it assists.
For example, when James noticed that few of the people coming for meals had face masks, she organized a program to create and provide kits complete with materials and instructions on how to make the protective coverings. "We had an area set up where I showed the residents what was in the kit and showed them how to create the mask, just in case they couldn't read or comprehend," James said.
To build family cohesion, she arranged to offer board games as gifts to the children.
Sr. Capuano said the games were a big hit. "We handed those out several weeks and the kids were delighted," she said. "They got to pick out a game that they liked."
The popular choice, she said, was the old classic Candy Land.
Every week, a truck from Mercy ferries dozens of meal packages to the distribution site. Sr. Capuano and her volunteer helpers also distribute food packages to families at Skyline Terrace. Forty more packages are delivered to Queen Esther's Village, a senior community.
Joy in helping
Since Mercy got the meal program rolling, more support for the families has come in. For example, Faith Family Church, a nondenominational church in Canton, began sending a truck loaded with groceries to distribute at the school and at Skyline Terrace.
The Mercy meals program initially had been set to run only until what would have been the end of the school year. However, the grant from the Sisters of the Humility of Mary is enough to keep it going for many more months.
That is good news not only for the families who receive the meals, but also for the Mercy group behind their distribution. They said seeing the need up close and being able to help out has brought them a sense of purpose in a troubling time.
Katie Simmons, a registered nurse who has worked at Mercy for 42 years, volunteered to help with the meal giveaway while she was furloughed from work because of the downturn caused by the pandemic. "I look forward to Friday," she said at the time. "It's the day I get out."
James said she has found joy at the weekly event. "It's truly been a blessing to go down there and to really get to know the families and to know their names and to know their children," she said.
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