Juanita Foster still lives on the block she grew up on at West 99th and South Sangamon on the city’s South Side.

Her older neighbors who still live on the street are the folks who helped raise her. Foster laughed while remembering that they used to call her mother if they saw her out acting up. Now 67, when reflecting on her childhood in Roseland, Foster remembers their block parties – joyful gatherings when all of the families would sit and eat together until they couldn’t take another bite.

These days, the retired federal employee and church minister is still connecting with her community through food, despite the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

On a recent Wednesday evening at the Allen Metropolitan Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Roseland, Foster was one of a handful of volunteers picking up home-cooked dinners to deliver to the older adults on their blocks. The church, which has run a weekly hot meal program for more than a year, has devised creative solutions to continue feeding their most vulnerable community members amid COVID-19.

Juanita Foster picks up meals for her parents and neighbors to protect them from COVID-19.

Juanita Foster picks up meals for her parents and neighbors to protect them from COVID-19.

Foster picked up eight to-go boxes filled with grilled chicken, white rice, and greens. Two were for her parents. Her mother, 94, and her father, 92, have been married for 74 years and still live on the block. The rest were for others who live nearby.

Each week, Foster said she hangs the plastic bag carrying the meal on their doorknobs, says a quick prayer and leaves before they get to the door to minimize interaction.

“Seniors are our history, our wisdom, “she said. “And we have to stand up for them to make sure they’re OK.”

Expanding the reach

The recipients of Foster’s deliveries used to visit Allen Metropolitan each Wednesday night for its community meal, offered in partnership with the Food Depository. Pre-COVID, the church would fill its Fellowship Hall with about 100 people from all ages and walks of life. A volunteer pianist and saxophonist would fill the room with relaxing music as older adults, residents from nearby group homes, and local families would enjoy a delicious, nutritious meal.

To keep their neighbors safe, the program has switched to a pick-up and delivery model. Volunteers and church staff pack hundreds of meals on the long tables in the Fellowship Hall. The live musicians have been replaced with a loudspeaker playing gospel tunes, keeping the assembly line energized and uplifted.

It’s been a huge adjustment, said the Rev. David Bryant. But as they work together to feed the growing number of people in need, Bryant said community leaders have never been more connected in their mission to serve those in need.

Rev. David Bryant in the Allen Metropolitan C.M.E Church sanctuary

Rev. David Bryant

Even after the worst of this pandemic is behind us, Bryant said he doesn’t want to return to business as usual. He wants this level of community collaboration to continue, something he said should have been in place all along.

“There shouldn’t be any empty bellies in our community,” said Bryant, 66.

Over the last month, the dinners have gone out to 300 to 400 people each week – more than three times the number of people typically served. On this recent Wednesday night, they served 350 meals.

There are several reasons for the recent surge, Bryant said. More people are hurting financially and are in greater need of food assistance. The church offers to-go meals to anyone who shows up in person, and sends meals to senior and group homes.

The church has been working more proactively with block leaders like Foster. Their first-hand knowledge of their neighbors helps identify those who may be in need of home-delivered meals, particularly older adults.

“We’re reaching out further now,” he said. “It’s more intentional and more urgent.”

Feeding the front lines

To support those on the front lines, church volunteers and staff have also prepared and delivered meals to Roseland Community Hospital.

When the hospital kitchen was briefly shut down after hospital staff tested positive for the coronavirus, Allen Metropolitan was one of the local organizations that stepped in to provide food for the staff and patients. Now, the kitchen is back up and running, but the church staff and volunteers are still making dinners each Wednesday and Friday for hospital staff. On that recent Wednesday evening, they delivered 150 meals there.

Elbert Clinton, a minister at Allen Metropolitan C.M.E. Church, fills a bus with 150 dinners in to-go containers. Clinton delivered the meals to staff at Roseland Community Hospital.

Elbert Clinton, a minister at Allen Metropolitan C.M.E. Church, fills a bus with 150 dinners in to-go containers. Clinton delivered the meals to staff at Roseland Community Hospital.

“They’re making a great, great sacrifice and putting their lives on the line to take care of us,” Bryant said of these essential workers. “The least we can do is provide them a meal.”

Janet Rogers, who works at the hospital as a medical coder, said the meals have been a blessing during these hectic times.

“It helps us because a lot of us, we can’t get out to order food, buy food on lunch, the work is just overwhelming,” said Rogers, 62. “You can’t get away.”

After learning more about Allen Metropolitan through their partnership with the hospital, Rogers has been coming to pick up meals for her older sister. Her sister lives in a nursing home and has difficulty leaving the facility on her own to get groceries. The grilled chicken and sides would feed her that night and the next day, Rogers said.

“I really think it’s an answer to my prayers,” she said of being able to support her sister.

Janet Rogers leaves the Allen Metropolitan C.M.E. Church with meals for her sister

Janet Rogers picks up meals for her sister at the Allen Metropolitan C.M.E. Church

Though Juanita Foster hasn’t been able to talk to them in person, she knows her neighbors are grateful for the food delivery. Each week, they leave her thank-you cards in her mother’s mailbox.

“On every card I get,” she said, “they always say it’s good to have someone they helped raise to even think about them.”