Religious Groups Unite to Feed the Hungry During the Pandemic

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When the world seems like it’s coming apart, there is nothing more life-affirming than seeing a coordinated effort of different groups to bring it more together.

That is what is happening in Dutchess County, New York, about a two-hour drive north of New York City. There, a coalition has formed, bringing together virtually every faith group under the sun to help battle food insecurity during the COVID crisis.

On the last Sunday in May, 15 volunteers loaded up 650 food boxes into the back of a U-Haul truck and set up a food-distribution site in the Poughkeepsie Galleria mall parking lot.

The interfaith “All for One” food drive — servicing families struggling to put food on the table during the pandemic — came together in less than a month. The event was the fruit of efforts from close to 70 volunteers across nine different religious communities, who also raised an impressive $60,000 in donations.

One of those volunteers was Aena Iqbal, a public health student at American University. The 19-year-old volunteer coordinator made sure everyone was masked, gloved, and appropriately socially distant. By the end of that Sunday, volunteers had handed out over 1,000 boxes of essential, non-perishable goods, including pasta, peanut butter, cereal, flour, rice, oil, sugar, and cans of tuna fish. Cars drove up to the distribution stations with the guidance of Iqbal and other traffic-control volunteers, where they were given enough food to feed a family of four for several days.

With safety and logistics under control, Iqbal could reflect on the fact that the drive was both a tremendous accomplishment, and a painful reminder of just how widespread food insecurity is for some in the Dutchess County community. “This made us feel accomplished, but also disheartened to see what a need there is here,” she said. “It was a wake-up call.”

Iqbal’s enthusiasm for this type of philanthropic work is something she shares with her mother, the co-founder of the “All for One” food drive, Dr. Seema Rizvi.

“I was looking for a way to help, because my ‘All for One’ mission is really to help humanity,” said Rizvi, 54. “So, when the pandemic started, I saw there was a need for food drives, and that was a way I could really help.”

The All for One effort sprang in part from Rizvi’s earlier work, in which she founded  “All for One, One for All, United We Stand, Divided We Fall,” a platform that aims to bridge the gap between different religious communities through discussion and philanthropic efforts.

When president of the local Hindu Samaj Temple, Dr. Rabi Sinha, expressed interest in joining forces with Rizvi, a practicing Muslim, the “All for One” interfaith community food drive was born.

It was important that this be an interfaith effort, said Rizvi, because it would show the power of a diverse group of people coming together for one common cause.

"It was important that this be an interfaith effort, said Rizvi, because it would show the power of a diverse group of people coming together for one common cause."

To help further diversify this initiative, Rizvi called on others she knew, including Miriam Gladstone, whom she met via the Mid-Hudson Muslim Jewish Alliance. The goal of the Mid-Hudson Muslim Jewish Alliance was always discussing commonalities between the two religions and uniting through social action, and the All for One food drive allowed both goals to be realized.

“It was breaking my heart to see doctors and nurses who were struggling to care for patients, and here I was unable to help,” said Gladstone. “So, when Seema called me, I said, ‘Absolutely,’ because I was just waiting for something I could do.”

Between outreach from both Rizvi and Sinha, the two organizers secured support and representation from even more religious and ethnic groups, including Bahai, Christian, Sikh, and Unitarian Universalist, as well as the Chinese and Latinx communities. Volunteers across all religious denominations took on different roles — spreading the word, shopping for food, donating funds, assembling food boxes, and distributing goods the day of the drive.

Gladstone said that many of the volunteers she reached out to were eager to contribute and were especially excited that the effort was interfaith. “I think anytime we can show strength like we did in this food drive, it’s because it’s such a diverse community,” she said. “One community wouldn't be able to do this on its own.”

Similarly, Iqbal was pleased to see a diverse group so passionate about a single goal. “There were people who were working together toward a cause,” she said, “regardless of religion, gender, or race.”

Rizvi and Sinha’s GoFundMe for the “All for One” community food drive raised just about $30,000 in only a few weeks from 165 donors. Through his own separate fundraising efforts, Sinha raised an additional $30,000, which means the group now has the funds for a second food drive — tentatively scheduled for early July.

Rizvi said she was touched by the outpouring of volunteer requests and people’s desire to help during this moment of need.

“This is a huge crisis, which is why we want to continue this,” said Rizvi. “This was only a success because of collective action.”

Tags: Volunteering, Navigating the Pandemic, Overcoming Adversity

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Khaya Himmelman

Khaya Himmelman is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in Bustle and Rolling Stone. She’s a gradu... See Full Bio

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