Volunteers prepare to serve community members fresh food at Don Bosco Senior Center.

Amid heightened food insecurity resulting from COVID-19, Don Bosco Centers of Kansas City and Harvesters are partnering to provide fresh food.

On the second Friday of each month a mobile food pantry will be in the parking lot at the Don Bosco Senior Center, 580 Campbell St., offering food to those in need.

Friday, June 12 was the first time the center offered this service. Volunteers donned masks and gloves to hand out fresh food in a farmer’s market fashion.

Social distancing was practiced while customers waited their turn at the mobile food pantry.

“There’s a lot of need here in this area, so any time we can offer a place that has a lot of people that are food insecure, we want to be able to help,” Harvesters Agency Coordinator Justine Koontz said. “We saw a need, we knew a location that would say yes, it’s a great place.”

Fresh produce and dairy can be expensive in grocery stores, Koontz said, which led Harvesters to choose these healthy items for mobile pantries since Harvesters’ food bank has mostly staples and canned goods.

Volunteers Nikitra Bennet and Vincent Bender used to be homeless until just last week. Originally from Kentucky, they now have a place to call home in Kansas City.

“We want to give back to the community that gave to us,” Bennet said. “We just love people and we have had so much help from the community and so we want to give back.”

Volunteers Nikitra Bennet and Vincent Bender, who used to be homeless, want to give back to the community that helped them.

The food pantry is open to the public, and no proof of residency or identification is required.

“This is just a great way to get the community out, even in a pandemic,” Don Bosco Centers Summer Intern Whitney Akalugwu said. “It’s great seeing everybody being really safe about it and it’s just a great way for people to get reconnected.”

Meghan Dohogne helps a customer at the Don Bosco Centers mobile food pantry on June 12.

The center is still searching for volunteers to help with future mobile food pantries, who can sign up via a link on its Facebook page.

Don Bosco Centers also offers free pre-boxed produce at the Senior  Center through Friday, between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., while they last. Last week, 160 produce boxes were picked up.

Now in its 80th year, Don Bosco Centers cultivate self-sufficient neighbors, resulting in a stronger community.

The Senior Center serves adults with disabilities and those 60 and older, many of whom are non-English speakers.

Wick Thomas and Doug Terranova pass out raspberries to customers at the mobile food pantry on June 12.

“They are able to live healthier and more independent lives with our on-site meals, Meals on Wheels program transportation and a full range of activities and recreation,” Don Bosco Centers Director of Development Ann Van Zee said.

For Columbus Park neighbors like Patricia Eisele, the mobile food pantry was a nearby opportunity to get fresh, healthy food.

“I’m on Social Security and I don’t have a car,” Patricia Eisele said, showing the cart full of fruit and vegetables she planned to wheel home. “This center is just wonderful, and I think it’s fabulous Harvesters is coming. It’s hard for me to get to the grocery store. During the pandemic, this really makes a big difference on many levels.”

Meghan Dohogne and Poppy DiCandeloro join a fellow Columbus Park resident to pass out potatoes on June 12.

Since the Senior Center has been closed to on-site activities and meals because of COVID-19, the Meals on Wheels program has expanded to fill the need for homebound and vulnerable clients.

“We are supporting more low-income seniors with perishable, frozen, and shelf-stable food so they can continue to self-isolate for their own health and safety,” Van Zee said. “For many of our clients, the hot daily lunch is their only nutritious meal of the day – and the delivery driver may be the only person they interact with – so our efforts are doubly important.”

Kari Niehaus and her son David learned about the opportunity to volunteer through Church of the Ressurection. said he and his mom have been volunteering together since he was in high school.

“We figured we’d come out here today and pay it forward,” David said.

The Adult Education Center and English as a Second Language (ESL) School serves immigrants and refugees, helping them realize their potential through wellness programs, free educational opportunities and workforce development training.

The Don Bosco Senior Center serves a wide variety of elderly Kansas Citians.

Bilingual Don Bosco Centers staff Mary Stevenson translates Spanish, but the greater need now is for a Vietnamese translator. They have a few volunteers, but they are seniors themselves and COVID-19 has posed new challenges.

“We haven’t had them lately, which is tough because the Vietnamese are coming to get food boxes and stuff like this,” Stevenson said. “Our center’s very international, which is cool.”

With the ESL school closed, many students and their families struggle with limited resources, unemployment and uncertainty exacerbated by COVID-19.

“In the past, we have operated a very small emergency assistance pantry for our seniors and provide limited food assistance to our ESL student families,” Van Zee said. “Hosting a mobile food distribution from Harvesters lets us maximize our own meager resources to increase our ability to help more people.”