FLATLANDS — Father Dwayne Davis never wanted to start a food pantry at his parish, St. Thomas Aquinas Church in southeast Brooklyn, mainly because he didn’t have enough space.
But when the COVID-19 lockdowns hit in March 2020, the breadwinners for thousands of families couldn’t work and suddenly had no paychecks.
Ironically, it was the pandemic that freed up the space. Like every other school, the parish’s Midwood Catholic Academy closed, leaving its gym, Msgr. King Hall, wide open for business.
According to parish records, during its April-to-August run, the ministry fed 69,331 people. Its drive-up service made national headlines, and donations poured in from all over the U.S., Father Davis said.
Eric Adams, Brooklyn Borough President and Democratic mayoral candidate, was so impressed, he honored Father Davis with a COVID-19 Hero award. But the pastor is quick to give all the credit to his parish and about 60 volunteers.
“It was really and truly an honor,” he said of the award. “But it’s an honor deserving of every person who helped to make it happen.”
The food pantry began with a ring of the St. Thomas Aquinas rectory’s doorbell.
The operators of a nearby Jewish center, who still prefer to be anonymous, routinely received more food than they could distribute. So, they offered the surplus to their Catholic neighbors.
Father Davis knew many local families could garner enough income to pay rent, but not food as well. That’s when he agreed to start the food pantry.
“We obviously saw that there was a need,” he said. “All you had to do was turn on the TV and see the news.”
But before the pandemic, Father Davis’ misgivings about launching a food pantry involved more than just a lack of space.
He was unsure how to coordinate the volunteers needed to unload truckloads of food and repackage it for distribution. In addition, he had to get insurance and notify the local police precinct about possible traffic issues.
But once Father Davis agreed to distribute the food, he resolved to overcome the logistical issues, and he was glad he did.
“The corporal works of mercy have always been something important to me,” he said. “Within a week, we were up and running.”
Still, the task was challenging, as the ministry “grew so big, so quickly” by word of mouth, Father Davis said.
“I think it was harder than I even thought it would be,” he explained. “This was not really a food pantry; it was a food distribution and food pantry mixed together.”
The pastor explained that a pantry keeps food on hand for needy folks, but they might only see a few people each day.
A food distribution, he added, is a much bigger operation, from unloading trucks to packaging food boxes for dozens of people. In this case, the daily service reached hundreds of people, sometimes as many as 1,000, Father Davis said.
“I think,” he speculated, “we had the first drive-through food pantry, as well as a walk-up, in the whole country; if not, definitely in Brooklyn.
“The car line wrapped around the block. The walk-up line wrapped around the block.”
“It was a lot; there were some days, we’re getting two or three trucks,” Father Davis said. “Every day, we had pallets of food. We had to split them into smaller amounts, then box them up to make sure everybody got something.”
The volunteers, many out of work themselves, eagerly pitched in from the start. Also, supportive parishioners provided refrigerators.
“People from all over were saying, ‘What do you need? How can we help?’” Father Davis said.
Currents News, on NET-TV, aired a feature story about the ministry, spawning reports by other stations. Soon, St. Thomas Aquinas was getting monetary donations from as far away as Florida, Father Davis said.
“We used the money to buy things that we needed,” he added, “like bags to help package things into smaller packages.”
By August 2020, Father Davis and volunteers knew they had to end the ministry to let Midwood Catholic Academy reopen for the new school year.
Father Davis said that if he is ever called upon to distribute food again, he knows how to do it, and parishioners will make it happen. That’s why they deserve the COVID-19 Hero award the most, he said.