The driver bounced from his cab and yanked open the clunking roll-up door and six volunteers unloaded the provisions, setting in motion an informal network that has served as a lifeline for thousands of Lawrence people.
Overseeing and directing the distribution was volunteer Adolfo Rosario, clipboard in hand, an Army veteran familiar with large-scale operations.
In Spanish, he counted out the number of bread loaves to be placed in each bag. He reviewed the boxes of food requested by pastors for hungry households. A help mission was underway.
Vehicles formed a line out onto Essex Street, each car, in turn, getting loaded with bags of bread and boxes with milk, meat, produce, fruit, yogurt and cheese.
If this was a scene from the “Nutcracker,” hunger would be the evil Mouse King and the volunteers the tin soldiers battling deprivation.
One by one vehicles pulled out the opposite end of the lot, the drivers ferrying food to those in need throughout the city and Methuen.
This food drama plays out each day here and elsewhere in Lawrence and in the Merrimack Valley to meet expanding need. The shuttling of food during pandemic distancing restrictions and hardships requires many small steps.
In a larger sense, the hunger relief is like one great big table where people pass bowls and plates to their neighbors.
Pastor Milagro Grullon of Community Christian Fellowship Lawrence, who heads this hunger relief effort for an association of 70 Lawrence churches, has seen need explode during the COVID-19 crisis.
In some instances churches, including her own, have seen the number of people in need since May double, triple or increase by even greater numbers.
Each day, parishioners and nonparishioners text, email and call religious leaders to find out what their specific food needs are. The pastors relay this information to Grullon.
The help includes diapers and laundry cards.
As COVID-19 infections have risen again, more and more people have been shuttered in their homes due to infections, other sickness, childcare and elder-care responsibilities. And also, there’s all the unemployment, says the pastor.
“There are a lot of people infected and affected,” she said.
Grullon originally comes from the Dominican Republic, a place where many people are familiar with want, but not the kind that she sees now in Lawrence. Here she sees people taking a place in food distribution lines who have never had to do so in the past.
She says she just received a phone call from a woman who has been a stalwart delivery person, bringing food to the elderly and sick. Now, this woman is sick and needs food.
“This hurts,” says Grullon.
But pain can be a motivator and rally cooperation.
So much, not enough
Major food providers for the region’s hungry are the Merrimack Valley Food Bank and Boston Food Bank, which deliver to dozens of sites in Lawrence.
Also helping to fill local food needs are the Lawrence YMCA, the Lawrence School System, the Lawrence Senior Center, the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence, Groundwork Lawrence, Bread and Roses kitchen, the House of Mercy, Neighbors in Need, Cor Unum meal center and Lazarus House.
Angelo Boria of the Lawrence Bread & Roses soup kitchen delivers bulk food daily to churches, shelters and pantries. Bread and Roses has delivered 450,000 pounds of food since the pandemic started, a majority of it going to Grullon’s network of pastors for distribution, he said.
Among those who receive food are the neediest of the needy, the city’s hundreds of homeless people, he said.
Every weekday from 3 to 5 p.m., rain or shine, the Lawrence YMCA distributes grab-and-go meals below the concrete pillars of its four-story building at 40 Lawrence St.
Since March 18, they have served over 78,000 grab-and-go and children’s meals, said Cathy Redard, director of child care.
The Lawrence Y operates a food pantry Thursdays, providing food for over 400 people each week.
The Y has also distributed over 61,000 pounds of food at its Mobile Market at the Methuen YMCA, typically held the third Saturday of the month. On Nov. 21, 11,000 pounds of food were distributed, said Frank Kenneally, CEO and president of the Merrimack Valley YMCA.
So many cars were lined up that 100 of them received no food. It ran out. People are worried about having enough to eat, he said.
“When you see that many people in line and you run out of food it is disheartening,” Kenneally said.
‘Amo a Dios’: For the love of God
On Saturday, Dec.19, dozens of Y volunteers gave bags of food to people pulling up in vehicles.
The line started forming more than an hour before the distribution was to start, prompting the group to begin passing out food early to relieve the traffic along the side of Route 110.
Food insecurity is escalating, Kenneally said. On Thanksgiving Day the Y distributed 970 hot meals.
Some 13,500 children attend Lawrence Public Schools. All of them can get free breakfast and lunch.
A year ago, when school was in session at all the physical locations, the food staff was feeding 8,300 breakfasts and 9,800 lunches to students. Sit-down cafeteria meals ended when COVID-19 closed schools.
Now the schools offer grab-and-go breakfast and lunch, serving 2,500 to 2,700 meals at six locations, said Carol Noonan, head of nutrition services.
The food program provides seven days of meals to students on two days, distributing three days worth of breakfasts and lunches Tuesdays and four days worth of them Fridays. Parents and students pick up the food from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the six sites: The Parthum, Guilmette, Frost, Arlington, Lawrence High and the Salvation Army (250 Haverhill St.).
Meanwhile, at 582 Essex St., home to Pastor Grullon’s church and an association of about 150 evangelical pastors of the Merrimack Valley, the delivery truck from Greater Boston Gleaners (a group that brings healthy farm food to those in need) was unloaded.
Volunteers — parishioners from area churches — work here daily, collecting food donations from trucks and loading them to hand out. They head to Shaw’s and Stop and Shop warehouses to pick up food donated by the supermarket companies.
Why do they volunteer?
“Amo a Dios ,” says Robinson Garcia, popping a hand truck on its wheels and smiling.
For the love of God.
“It’s why we all do this,” Rosario says.
One of the first pastors to depart with food deliveries is the Rev. Luis Leonor of the Fountain of Salvation Christian Church at 165 Haverhill St.
His church is a tall stone Gothic Revival design with beautiful stained glass windows and a high arching ceiling.
The church was built in 1859 by congregationalists. Some of the same stones in the front were used in construction of the Lawrence Dam.
Next door, to the right, is the Lawrence Senior Center, where a line was formed not for food this Wednesday at noon but for COVID testing.
At pastor Leonor’s church, parishioner Evelyn Santell picks up two boxes of food, one of which she will deliver to a fellow parishioner, a 92-year-old woman who lives in Lawrence.
The other box is for Santell and her son, who is 12. She will make smoothies and cereal and soups and dinners with the food.
She is grateful for the help since she has been laid off from her job in sales.
She shares what she receives with two elderly renters, ages 74 and 83, in the Methuen apartment building where she lives.
The food shuttling continues. Winter has just begun.