Five days after Arch Street Center closed its doors because of COVID-19 on March 13, Susan Lilly and her staff were serving meals in the center’s parking lot.
Lilly, the executive director of Arch Street Center at 629 N. Market St., says she felt strongly about continuing to feed the 40 to 50 members who rely on the center’s free meal program, despite COVID-19 shutting the center down.
The center is a nonprofit that offers a membership-based day program for adults living with serious mental illnesses. In addition to providing meals, the center also offers 45-60 activities per month. While the center has since reopened to members with safety precautions and limited hours, it closed its doors temporarily at the height of the pandemic.
“The beginning of COVID, stay home, quarantine, shelter-in-place, all of those big scary words were happening, and I’ve got all of these people who are regular dependents sort of on our program, and what am I going to do? How do we continue to take care of those folks?,” Lilly says. “The staff was all on board with that, so we started on that Wednesday serving meals just to our members.”
Then she started seeing social media posts about local community members needing a meal. She also received phone calls from local homeless individuals and other concerned members of the Lancaster community.
They asked questions like: Can you take anybody? Will you feed anybody that comes?
“And we were like ‘Sure. Absolutely we will.’” Lilly says.
So, Arch Street’s organizers adapted its lunch program to continue serving the community. The center offers lunch five days a week outside, available to anyone who needs it.
Serving the masses
While a typical carryout lunch at the center brings out about 70-75 members, Lilly says the center saw more than 90 attendees one day.
Attendees can grab lunch from a table in the center’s parking lot every weekday from 11:45 a.m. to 1 p.m. Over 7,000 meals have been served since March 18.
Donations and a dedicated staff are vital in keeping the meals coming.
“We’ve been super-duper fortunate that number one, we were able to keep people working,” Lilly says. “Number two, that the county was still funding our program.”
The center has received grants from the Lancaster County Community Foundation, including the Lancaster Cares COVID-19 Response Fund, as well as contributions from a small group of people who regularly donate to the nonprofit.
The organization has also been given donations anonymously, partly because of the emails it sends out asking for food and pantry donations and social media posts it makes on Facebook and Instagram.
“We’re taking donations whenever somebody wants to drop them off,” Lilly says. “If you call me and say, ‘Hey I can come on a Sunday’ when we are not open, somebody will be here to meet you.”
Lilly says the lunches the center serves are restaurant quality. The center shares photos of its meals on Facebook and Instagram, from French toast casserole to baked cod and brisket.
“The quality and the variety of the meals that we are putting out on a daily basis, nobody else is really doing that,” Lilly says.
Vegan jackfruit curry over rice is one of the latest dishes chef Susanna Schober-Schaum has made for the lunch program in August.
Schober-Schaum, the cook at the center, has personally steered away from meat lately and tried to include vegetarian or vegan options for lunch about twice a week.
The choices depend on what donations the center receives.
“If we get a lot of vegetables or things, we can make a curry with vegetables and rice,” Schober-Schaum says.
Lilly says she’s not a vegetarian, but has learned more about it from the meals Schober-Schaum crafts.
“Sometimes we’ll get things and our cook will crank out an entire vegetarian meal that is so good,” Lilly says. “I’m learning about jackfruit and the versatility of the chickpea.”
Bridging the gap
Schober-Schaum says the lunch program fills a gap in the community left by COVID-19.
“People are trying to improvise, and they’re trying to find jobs,” Schober-Schaum says. “Everyone’s going through this huge change, and it’s really important to have resources that can pick up the slack.”
Arch Street Center plans to continue serving lunch.
“We’re not stopping anytime soon. We don’t have any sort of end date at this point,” Lilly says. “As long as there’s a need and we can fill it, I think we have, as an organization a desire to be able to do that.”