In March 2020, as the gravity of the COVID crisis set in, we spoke with our partners at BUILD and decided we could not just continue with our business as usual. Though neither of us had roots in direct service, we saw that together, we had the capacity to meet one of the most urgent needs facing families in ReBUILD homes and across East Baltimore: food on the table.

A few weeks later, we delivered our first 550 grocery boxes and our first 300 masks and sanitizer bottles. Most recipients were unable to work or had lost income due to the economic shock of the pandemic. Many required public transit to get groceries, which exposed them to the threat of COVID with each trip. Many had children who depended on free lunch at schools that were now closed. We knew our deliveries would make a difference for these families.

Still, we never imagined the impact our COVID Emergency Food Program would go on to have. Since that first delivery, our Program has delivered over 5.5 million meals to over 1,250 families in need, ensuring these families have not faced hunger during the entire pandemic. In doing so, we created part-time jobs for 35 delivery drivers and 5 drop-off site coordinators. Our program also empowered each driver to conduct local contact tracing and to help food recipients access critical public health resources, which helped provide access to testing and vaccinations to thousands of Baltimoreans.

Today, over 70% of families in the program who suffered a loss of job, wages, or hours as a result of the pandemic have returned to work and are on a path to renewed self-sufficiency. COVID dealt a blow to the communities we serve, but with the support of the Food Program—and the bedrock of our $120 million of community reinvestment over the past 15 years—they have remained resilient.

This program was another example of what can be achieved when hundreds of Baltimoreans work together to support their city. Rebuild Johnston Square Neighborhood Organization and four BUILD churches—Koinonia Baptist, Zion Baptist, Mount Sinai Baptist, and Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ—opened their doors to facilitate weekly deliveries. City Seeds offered its facility as a drop-off location. Our drivers have been tireless in ensuring every family receives food and resources each week. Saval Foods, Johns Hopkins Hospital, the Maryland Food Bank, the US Department of Agriculture, and The City of Baltimore have together provided $2.2 million in food or in funds for groceries. Weinberg Foundation, France-Merrick Foundation, Middendorf Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Madeline Foundation, Rouse Foundation, BGE/Exelon, and the Johns Hopkins Neighborhood Fund all supported program operation. And dozens of donors have chipped in to help us purchase and deliver masks, hand sanitizer, and other supplies to help families in the pandemic's early stages. We are grateful for every individual and institution who have helped our families remain safe and nourished.

The success of the Food Program has also relied on local community leaders who have committed to making sure their neighbors have enough food each week. Ms. Renee, a lifelong East Baltimorean living along Bond Street Park in the Gay Street neighborhood, is one of these community pillars. For 20 years, Ms. Renee has made it her cause to maintain Bond Street Park and to use the space to provide activities to local children. This past Spring, in partnership with the Food Program, she turned the park into a market.

Each Tuesday and Wednesday, Ms. Renee unloads dozens of Food Program grocery boxes and places the contents into bins so neighbors can choose items they need. She has also arranged for weekly donations from a meat supplier and other food providers. Gay Street residents who rely on these groceries include families in the nearby public residences and several seniors who live along the park.

Bond Street Park is one of several pick-up sites where we will extend our food sources for families with ongoing needs. Meanwhile, we are working with Ms. Renee and her neighbors improve the park by removing old branches and overgrowth and adding new features for play and gathering, so that she can continue to give children on her block a safe place to gather for years to come.