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In this 10-part local series, KSMU News Director Jennifer Moore shared the stories of the unsheltered homeless residents of Springfield, Missouri as their lives were upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Drawing from dozens of interviews, "Unsheltered" looked at shelter capacity, hygiene, food, mental health, coronavirus prevention, unique risks to women and transgender residents, employment disruptions, policy on homeless camps, local CARES Act expenditures and how other communities were using coronavirus relief funds to shelter their homeless.

Switching From Hot, Seated Meals To Grab-And-Go, Springfield's Homeless Miss Mealtime Camaraderie

Provided by Salvation Army Springfield

365 days a year, the Salvation Army’s Frontline Feeding program in Springfield serves meals to the homeless.

"We serve that lunch rain, sunshine or snow, pandemics, whatever," said Jeff Smith, a spokesman for the Salvation Army in Springfield. He says in more typical years, that program has provided a seated, hot lunch indoors. But once the pandemic struck, the organization had to figure out how to serve the meals while also staying safe and keeping in line with local ordinances.

So they quickly switched to lunches to-go, like a carry-out service.

Credit Salvation Army Springfield
Brown bag meals are among the lunches provided by the Salvation Army, shown here, and some other homeless services providers during the pandemic.

"We'll do sandwiches or ready-to-eat foods in those lunches at times, but also there's times that we have food that you wouldn't expect to get 'to go.' And that's like green beans or macaroni and cheese," Smith said.

The Salvation Army normally serves lunch to an average of 135 people a day in Springfield, Smith said.

"There are some days it gets down to 80 and some days as much as 185. For the last fiscal year, ending this last September, our Frontline feeding program actually served 57,056 meals, and that's a lot of cooking," Smith said.

Over at Veterans Coming Home, a drop-in center for the homeless in central Springfield, hot meals are also served free of charge most days.  Steven Negroni, who was staying at Victory Mission’s paid shelter, has come here for the meal.

"So if I don't eat here, I'm going to go home hungry. It's good to see today they have the chicken casserole for lunch," Negroni said.

And over at Victory Mission, executive director Jason Hynson says the pandemic caused his organization to stop offering the free, nightly meals it used to provide as an outreach to unsheltered men. That was part of an effort to cut down on the spread of the coronavirus since shelters are considered high risk for potentially catastrophic outbreaks of COVID-19.

Credit Salvation Army Springfield
Harbor House, run by the Salvation Army in Springfield, has continued its free lunch service during the pandemic.

Hynson says he thinks that the mealtime fellowship or camaraderie that’s been lost due to the pandemic is among the most significant changes.

"I think that's the saddest thing, because that's really where conversation happens, let's gather for food and I think we've lost that relational capacity. So we're feeding people, but are we giving them what they need to be the best them," Hynson said.

And the pandemic has changed meals at Rare Breed, a Springfield resource and drop-in center for homeless teens and youth run by The Kitchen, Inc.   Rare Breed provides a meal every weeknight evening.

Before the pandemic, those meals would have been served by the volunteers who had prepared them. 

“And so normally, if it's a church group, they would come into the building and they would be able to offer that interaction and kind of love on the kids a little bit and that kind of a thing. And it's a hot meal and it's prepared and it's dished out cafeteria style right onto their plate. Obviously, we can't do it that way now,” said Kathy Westmoreland, the Youth Services Coordinator at Rare Breed.

The center resorted to brown-bag meals, she said, to keep everyone safe. More recently, volunteers have wanted to get more creative with donated meals.

“And so we've hit the point that as long as it is covered and individualized before it gets here whenever possible, then we'll give it out that way,” Westmoreland said.

Nationwide, homelessness, hunger, and malnutrition are intrinsically linked.

Statistics from the US Department of Agriculture, or USDA, show that even before the pandemic, more than 35 million Americans lived with food insecurity. And experts from Feeding America say that could rise by double digit percentages due to the pandemic.

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