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Army of programs work to keep the meals coming for masses in need

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LAWRENCE — The single mom has four children, ongoing family medical needs and fervent worries about getting sick and being unable to feed and care for her kids.

Wafa Bushway of Lawrence knew hardship before the coronavirus crisis. Now? It's a major problem.

"I tell you, I am struggling," she said. 

So are countless other families in the crowded Immigrant City.

Lawrence rents are high – one- and two-bedroom apartments run $995 to $2,150; median income is low – $33,000 to $36,000; and a large swath of its population of 80,000 population is young – 13,500 children in the school system.

Also, the economy is hemorrhaging.  Parents feel mounting stress over their children having enough to eat.

“It all comes down to food and shelter,” said Martha Velez, head of health and human services for Lawrence. “It is scary." 

Velez's department distributes food to 1,065 families, 184 COVID-19 patients and 1,500 elderly residents.

For the past month, Velez and the executive director of the public health group Groundwork Lawrence, Heather McMann, have recruited dozens of city, school and nonprofit leaders for twice weekly video meetings. 

Emergency plans installed as a result of those sessions include the conversion of soup kitchens and child nutrition programs to grab-and-go operations, along with food pantry pick-up and delivery services, McMann said. 

Groundwork Lawrence won grants from the state and the New Balance Foundation to buy fresh produce for people in need and to hire downtown Lawrence restaurants to prepare hot food.

The Lawrence Boys and Girls Club distributes the dinners in addition to its daily grab-and-go fare.

Lawrence schools are a linchpin in the crisis response. All their 13,500 students qualify for free lunch and breakfast.

Daily in January, the food staff fed 8,300 breakfasts and 9,800 lunches to students at 20 locations. Two months later, sit-down cafeteria meals ended when COVID-19 closed schools, said Carol Noonan, head of nutrition services.

The food program now offers grab-and-go breakfast and lunch, serving 1,000 meals a day at six locations; and a monthly mobile market that provides families with 60 pounds of fresh food.

"Parents are definitely worried about their kids getting enough food," Noonan said.

Wednesday at 11 a.m. outside an open door at Guilmette Elementary and Middle School, parents, older siblings and children lined up for boxed lunches that included a sandwich, a cup of mixed vegetables, fruit and milk.

At the front was a Guilmette sixth grader, getting lunch for his younger brother and sister and his dad.

Bushway and her family rely on and appreciate the school system's mobile market and the pantry at Community Christian Fellowship Lawrence, supplied by the Bread and Roses soup kitchen.

"It is lessening the pressure on me," Bushway said. "I just hope something doesn't happen to me. I'm only one who drives."

Pastor Milagro Grullon of the Christian Fellowship church has seen demand for food more than double. She packs healthy proteins that children like, such as peanut butter and yogurt, in the family food boxes the church distributes.

The major supplier for the region's soup kitchens and pantries are the Merrimack Valley Food Bank and Boston Food Bank, which supply hunger-relief programs with millions of pounds of food each year.

The Merrimack Valley food bank delivers to 21 sites in Lawrence, says director Amy Pessia. Need jumped about 10 percent in March, 20 percent in April and will go higher in May.

"It's like drinking from a fire hose," Pessia said.

The YMCA, Bread and Roses kitchen, Neighbors in Need, Cor Unum meal center and Lazarus House are among the organizations trying to fill the food needs of families and individuals, too.

Starting in May all Lawrence families with children in local schools will qualify for the new Pandemic-EBT program — $28.50 per week per child.

Bushway's family will qualify. She also bought vegetable seeds, soil and planters.

She never had a vegetable garden before. 

She will this year.

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