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Citizens of the Week: Welcome Bread

The volunteer peanut butter and jelly brigade is helping to feed thousands of people throughout the region during the pandemic

Citizens of the Week: Welcome Bread

The volunteer peanut butter and jelly brigade is helping to feed thousands of people throughout the region during the pandemic

VideoLong before the pandemic, Lou Farrell was known for his famous soups.

On Tuesdays at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion in Hatfield, he would serve cups to those who stopped by the lunch table during prayer, bible study and holy communion events organized by The Welcome Church of Philadelphia, where Farrell, a Hatfield resident is the manager of Welcome Bread, the church’s food-relief initiative.

Nowadays, the self-proclaimed “King of Jelly” has swapped one comfort food for another, launching a program to create thousands of PB&J sandwiches each month.

Welcome Bread is one of 81 recipients of the Philadelphia Covid-19 Fund’s Community Reopening Grant. Under Farrell’s leadership, it has dedicated the last five months to feeding those experiencing homelessness in Philly and its surrounding communities by collaborating with other nonprofits, volunteers, and churches in the region.

Although Welcome Church has always been committed to food distribution work, the realities of Covid-19 forced the congregation, like other hunger-relief organizations, to rethink its distribution practices. Volunteering in-person “got scary real fast,” says Farrell. “We didn’t have information on how we could safely distribute things. And then the churches we were working with, they just shut it down.”

Do SomethingWhen Farrell saw many churches closing in response to the pandemic, he made it his mission to construct a volunteer opportunity that prioritized three factors: the safety of individuals; the needs of the food-insecure; and the dedication of his community in a time of physical isolation.

Farrell hatched and organized a plan in only 25 minutes: If he could just get people to make and donate 100 PB&J sandwiches a week, his community would be doing their part to feed those in need.

Now, PB&J sandwiches are the central component of Welcome Bread’s work, and they might just be the greatest thing since, ahem, sliced bread: They are simple to make, freeze, and store. If each recipient gets two sandwiches to eat that’s 800 calories. “That’s a good start on a day’s nutrition,” he says.

Welcome Bread collected approximately 200 sandwiches in its first week, 1,000 in its first month, and 2,000 in its first six weeks. Currently, around 70 volunteers, ranging from ages 4 to 97, make a total of 2,200 to 2,500 sandwiches each week.

For the first month of the project, Welcome Bread relied on word of mouth to get more sandwiches into its pipeline. After making a Facebook post, the outpouring of support grew exponentially.

Welcome Bread collected approximately 200 sandwiches in its first week, 1,000 in its first month, and 2,000 in its first six weeks. Currently, around 70 volunteers, ranging from ages 4 to 97, make a total of 2,200 to 2,500 sandwiches each week. Ever humble, Farrell just sees himself as the middle man of the initiative. By the week of July 27, “we hit 26,000 sandwiches, and I haven’t made a single sandwich yet. I just drive them around,” he says.

Volunteer Carol MacDonald of Hatfield squeezes in sandwich-making on Tuesday afternoons. She goes through two loaves of Schmidt’s bread, jars of Jif or Skippy peanut butter (the organic stuff doesn’t hold up as well), and a jar of jam. Then MacDonald, like all volunteers, drops off her 20 to 40 sandwiches along with the occasional snack bag or fruit into collection coolers at a designated location in her neighborhood.

On Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays around 8am, Farrell and fellow Welcome Church member Barry Haydt collect, sort, and drive the sandwiches to food distributors all over Southeastern Pennsylvania—from Chester to Philly to Souderton.

Farrell approximates that people experiencing homelessness and families in need of free groceries each take 40 percent of the sandwiches, while the rest go to students in need of school lunch.

As the project expanded, Farrell realized he needed to find organizations outside of the ones in his Hatfield community to distribute the sandwiches.

Broke in Philly logoHelp came in the form of Liz Hagedorn, executive director of Nutritional Development Services with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Standing six-feet apart at the wedding rehearsal dinner for Farrell and Hagedorn’s children in Flat Rock Park, Farrell complained to Hagedorn about having too much PB&J on his hands. Welcome Bread now partners with the Archdiocese’s Community Food Program to distribute sandwiches in more urban locations, such as Kensington and North Philly.

Aside from the Archdiocese, Welcome Bread has made connections with approximately 17 organizations, including Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Souderton PA, Project HOME, Angels Sharing the Warmth in Sellersville PA, and Bombas Socks, as well as volunteers from elementary school and assisted living centers.

One of the smaller-scale locations where Welcome Bread delivers sandwiches is the 39-year-old Hatfield Food Cupboard of the Emmanuel Evangelical Congregational Church, which is managed by Janet Hage and affiliated with Philabundance’s Nutrition Coalition. Hage makes sure to give out the 20 to 40 sandwiches she receives from Welcome Bread each week to anyone who wants them, and especially to families with children.

Leesa Russell, a Hatfield resident of 31 years, started making the five-minute drive down to the Hatfield Food Cupboard almost two years ago, just after her husband lost his tow truck business due to a debilitating ulcer in his foot. She is exceedingly grateful for the food cupboard, especially under Covid-19 circumstances. On a recent trip to the cupboard, she picked up a few Welcome Bread PB&Js; even for her grown kids, she says “the sandwiches really hit the spot.”

Through Welcome Bread, Farrell has experienced the strength of his community coming together without physically seeing most of its members. The project is an optimal one in the era of Covid, since all sandwich-making occurs in the safety of a person’s own home. Although most of Farrell’s communication with volunteers happens over text, he has seen a few faces at Grace Lutheran Church’s parking lot services on Sundays.

As churchgoers fight for spots under the lot’s single shady tree, Farrell asks Diane Ball, a volunteer who makes 100 sandwiches a week, how she finds the time and money to pull it off. According to Farrell, she and her family look forward to the work each week because “it feeds [them] as much as it feeds the people who get the sandwiches.”

Read MoreAside from the occasional parking lot service, Farrell has not been able to preach the PB&J project to other congregations—something he has done with his previous work at Welcome Church. Therefore, Welcome Bread’s next steps are to spread the word about the PB&J project digitally to get more churches, nonprofits, and volunteers involved.

With all of these connections, Farrell is creating, as he puts it, “a robust urban and suburban partnership” for food distribution programs like Welcome Bread.

Farrell also hopes to one day have a party for all the volunteers who continue to make the project a reality. He suspects the party will include sandwiches in Ziploc bags … with gobs of peanut butter and jelly.

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