When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Atlantic City, NJ, in early 2020, the overall effect was devastating. Nearly 40% of the residents already lived below the poverty line. Thousands in the hospitality and service industries were laid off. People who have never stood in food lines found themselves lining up at the Salvation Army and other service organizations.

For the Sri Sathya Sai Center of Atlantic City, the opportunity to serve those in need was greater than ever. Center members had been conducting a monthly food service at Asbury Methodist Church for more than 5 years, a service that regularly drew 150-250 individuals. Physicians from the center would provide medical screening services with referral for follow-up care at a local free health clinic. With the onset of COVID-19, however, the church closed its doors and the center had to find an alternate location. In March 2021, they set up a portable tent on the parking lot at Renaissance Plaza, a popular nearby mall. Cloth face masks were distributed, along with bagged lunches, consisting of sandwiches, fruit and bottled water. The majority of the recipients were unemployed and homeless.

In July, Dr. Yatish Merchant, President of the Center, was approached at his workplace by a local case worker, Vinnie Kirkland, who helped them secure a huge mobile van. Owned by the Atlantic County Sheriff’s Foundation, the Hope One van is used during the week to reach people on the streets who were suffering from substance-use disorders, as well as provide COVID-19 tests, vaccinations and other needed resources to the community. Spacious and equipped with a refrigerator and kitchen, the van is just perfect to transport excess food to a different location after members complete distributing food at Renaissance Plaza. In September, the van traveled to a local park where 50 more individuals were given the remaining bagged lunches. In future, Dr. Merchant hopes to add medical screenings, like those previously offered in the church.

For this monthly service, a list of food and supplies needed is shared with center members, who volunteer to buy the supplies and deliver them to the center. Freshly cooked food is delivered in trays to the van and kept warm. Some members of the larger community also make donations to the service.

For Kirkland, born and raised in Atlantic City, the partnership with the center has been rewarding. “There are a lot of homeless individuals in Atlantic City and a lot of food insecurity.  By partnering with groups like the Sri Sathya Sai Center, we are able to use the van to give food to people who are really in need, as well as distribute clothes and hygiene kits.”