“Are we going to keep going? Are we sheltering?”

These were the questions Rose Lynn Abesamis-Bell had to ask about the Lake Lunches program when, in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic became a reality. Abesamis-Bell is the co-leader of the Connectional Ministries at Lake Merritt United Methodist Church, and Lake Lunches is one of the food programs she oversees.

Ultimately, Abesamis-Bell recognized the importance of continuing Lake Lunches during the pandemic, and many are grateful for that since the program has become a valuable community connection for local organizations, volunteers and lunch recipients alike.

“We decided we just had to regroup and think about how we would do it in a safe way,” she said. “We also realized we have the benefit of already being an outdoor program and having that physical space where we could really distance and do this safely.”

Nearing its 10th year in operation, Lake Lunches organizes the distribution of brown bags containing food and personal hygiene items to recipients around Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, volunteers walk with their bag-filled wagons in tow on a predetermined route around the lake, handing out the free bags to those in need. 

“The church is really just trying to reach anybody that needs help,” Lake Lunches volunteer Julia Askew explained. “It doesn’t matter if you’re living in a tent or have a house but can’t really afford food at the moment.”

The lunches and other items are a lifeline for many individuals, which influenced Abesamis-Bell’s decision to keep the program running during the pandemic. Throughout the many difficult months of 2020, Lake Lunches distributed 5,000 bags. In 2021, at least as many bags will be handed out due to the dedication of volunteers.

One volunteer, Mariah Sumpter, described Lake Lunches as “an opportunity to help those in your community.” A San Francisco State University student with an interest in becoming a social worker, Sumpter has worked at Lake Lunches for the past five months.

“It’s a great opportunity to get to meet those who are less fortunate around you,” she said. “And they all have great stories, great personalities. So it’s really just a chance to get in touch with your community.”

Partnerships with local organizations, such as Alameda County Community Food Bank and Eastlake United for Justice, are another community component of Lake Lunches. According to Abesamis-Bell, “The partnerships are so important, especially homegrown local partnerships where people know and have access to what the true needs and wants are in the community.” 

Along with getting to know many of the people they help, volunteers welcome feedback that can help improve their work.

“What I really like about volunteering with the church is they are wanting us to get feedback with the clients to see what they were liking in the packages and what could be improved,” Askew said. She and Sumpter took the time to survey recipients of the lunch bags to get a sense of their preferences and, in doing so, discovered that the peanut butter sandwich was not well received. 

Lake Lunches volunteer
Mariah Sumpter hands out free hygiene kits at Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Sumpter described Lake Lunches as “a chance to get in touch with your community.” (Photo courtesy of Tom Heutteman)

 “We found out not a lot of people were liking the peanut butter sandwiches because of allergies,” Askew said. “But as soon as Rose Lynn (Abesamis-Bell) and the church found out, we were asking, ‘Are there any other alternatives?’ And then one of them, somehow through his job, managed to get cheese donated. So we switched to cheese sandwiches. And it’s just nice to see an effort to make sure we’re giving food that clients enjoy while trying to provide some nutrition and sustenance as well.”

In addition to adjusting sandwich components — and even offering Impossible Burgers based on feedback — Lake Lunches volunteers make sure that individuals receive other necessities in the bags, namely hygiene items. 

“One of the wagons that goes out is particularly for those hygiene kits,” Abesamis-Bell said. “We used to just have like a little bar where people could take what they want, but because of COVID, we started to pack them in individual packs that people can just grab.”

Abesamis-Bell said the hygiene offerings heal wounds and stave off infections. “It’s so important to just have these basics, like antiseptic, Band-Aids, things like that … that are so common and easily accessible for us who have homes and consistent resources.”

Toiletry and cleaning items, such as shampoo, soap and laundry pods, are also included in the bags. 

As they pass out bags, Sumpter and Askew make a point of learning recipients’ names.

“You learn so much by a person’s name,” Sumpter said. “Then whenever you see them, it’s like, I automatically have a connection with you because I know your name.” 

Sumpter has also appreciated finding things in common with those she encounters. 

Once, when she was walking around the lake surveying people’s lunch item preferences, she ended up talking to someone for an hour and a half. 

“I just got to know his life, know his family, his background and stuff like that. And then we ended the day by playing Connect Four. For me, it was the most normal thing you can do — like, you play Connect Four with your friends. And so it made me realize that, yeah, everybody has a past, and sometimes in the present when you see people, they’re not at their best, but we really have so much more in common then we think.”

Those who receive the bags clearly appreciate seeing the volunteers twice a week.

“When we go along on our route, I say their names, like ‘Hey Isaac!’, and their faces light up in recognition,” Askew said. “We all have our little carts, so they can see us coming from a while away.”

Sumpter has also observed another response: relief.  

“Even if everything else is inconsistent [for them], they know that there’s relief on Tuesdays and Thursdays around 12 o’clock. They know they can get a lunch from us. They’re like, ‘At least I don’t have to look for where I’m getting food from today.’” 

Lake Lunches volunteer
Julia Askew offers a free lunch to an Oakland resident. For Askew, being a Lake Lunches volunteer has given her “an opportunity to develop relationships with people around the lake.” (Photo courtesy of Tom Heutteman)

At times, Lake Lunches volunteers go well beyond distributing bags. Sumpter shared the story of a couple she routinely encountered whose house had burned down. Because of COVID-19, the rebuilding of their home was delayed, and the couple had to live in a tent outdoors. When the tent was destroyed during a storm, Sumpter and other volunteers provided a new one so the couple could continue to have shelter. Eventually, the couple was able to move into an apartment, but they remain grateful for the kindness of the volunteers during their hardship.

“They came back to visit, and they were like, ‘You guys helped us so much during this time. We would have never thought we’d be living on the streets for a year. But one thing that we knew was constant was that we’d see you guys every week,’” Sumpter recalled.

Throughout the pandemic, Abesamis-Bell has noticed a growing number of people, of all ages and backgrounds, wanting to serve as volunteers. Some of those willing to lend their helping hands have been, or still are, recipients of the lunch bags. 

For Askew, who started volunteering at Lake Lunches in January, the people in the program and those she’s met around Lake Merritt have become her community. Here temporarily from Vancouver, British Columbia, Askew acknowledged that she has felt supported by her fellow volunteers and enjoys the time she spends with them preparing bags and handing them out. She is also grateful to have met and conversed with so many people at the lake.

Lake Lunches has continued uninterrupted throughout this still-lingering pandemic, and the program itself has been a source of joy and comfort for those involved. 

“Before COVID and maybe especially now, this space has been a little connecting place, whether with other volunteers or folks that are engaging with the services,” Abesamis-Bell said. “It’s been a really special place to just keep us healthy in that way. Just to have that connection.”

And it’s hard to imagine a better way to connect than through helping  people out during a challenging time.

To volunteer with Lake Lunches, go here. To donate to the Lake Lunches’ Hygiene Kit Supply Drive, go here