FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Immigrant Services Nonprofit Expanding to Combat COVID-19 Food Insecurity
Bilingual International Assistant Services is partnering with St. Louis Food Angels to provide resources directly to homebound individuals in the area
ST. LOUIS, MO (May 5, 2020) – For individuals in high risk populations – seniors, the immuno-compromised, and those with certain underlying health conditions like diabetes – essential tasks, such as a trip to the grocery store, have become increasingly complicated and potentially dangerous, as these groups have been determined to be more susceptible to the virus that causes COVID-19. With area food pantries and existing safety net resources stretched to capacity, local nonprofits are coming together to find innovative solutions to addressing common community needs, and prevent vulnerable individuals from having to choose between food and safety.
Bilingual International Assistant Services has been providing clinical care to foreign-born seniors in the St. Louis area for 18 years. Founded by formerly stateless refugee women, the organization has expanded in its almost two decades to provide mental health counseling to children and adults, interpretation/translation, immigration and naturalization services, and comprehensive social services for immigrant and refugee populations in St. Louis. Despite its expanded service portfolio, the agency has always retained its work with foreign-born seniors as a core competency, and preparations were underway for a 7th Anniversary celebration for its Macklind International Senior Center, when they were cut short by the outbreak of the Corona Virus.
With the senior center shuttered, agency leadership looked for ways to continue providing direct services to vulnerable foreign-born seniors, most of whom were low-income, many of whom had significant underlying health conditions, and all of whom spoke little to no English. Although some lived in multi-generational households or subsidized senior living facilities, many seniors lived isolated from their families or communities.
“I was scared when we closed the doors to the Senior Center, because that was a steady point of contact with our clients,” said Samira Mujdzic, Coordinator of the Senior Center. “There’s a lot that can be done over the phone, but you don’t get that visual confirmation of well-being, and eventually people are going to need ‘stuff,” and what do they do if they’re being told that they’re high risk and need to stay at home?”
After getting early reports of clients self-rationing existing food supplies and going hungry to avoid going to the store, agency leadership mobilized to ensure food security for clients. With the aid of a COVID-19 Regional Response Fund award from the St. Louis Community Foundation and existing support from the St. Louis Area Agency on Aging and St. Louis City Senior Fund, Bilingual International began reaching out to every senior client served on any agency program during the past 24 months. Multilingual social services staff checked in on senior clients in Mandarin, Bosnian, Farsi, Swahili, Arabic, Russian, Nepali, Spanish, Albanian, and Vietnamese, among other languages, and began compiling a needs registry. After reviewing that registry, agency Executive Director Jason Baker, began looking for additional ways to meet those needs in a service sector that was still scrambling to build out the existing food security infrastructure.
“I had heard a story on NPR about a diverse group of graduate and medical students that were doing food delivery to homebound adults and individuals diagnosed with COVID-19,” said Baker, “and they had just come together organically and created this initiative that was potentially saving lives.” After an initial inquiry, and finding significant overlap in mission and goals in a time of crisis, discussions began with St. Louis Food Angels leadership about joining forces with Bilingual International to work on last-mile delivery of food and essential supplies to homebound individuals in the region.
St. Louis Food Angels is a promising volunteer-driven initiative that is closely affiliated with area medical schools, universities, and hospitals, and was already providing delivery and resource coordination for several local efforts under the Salvation Army, Fit and Food Connection, HOSCO and the St. Louis Housing Authority, and Kindness Groceries. Formed in the nonprofit health solutions incubator Sling Health STL, St. Louis Food Angels is overseen by Co-Presidents Kay Park and Mike Pieper, neither of whom currently draw salary from their efforts. “What impressed me the most about their initiative, was that they were operating at the nexus of food security and public health,” said Baker, “so the goal was not just to get food to people in need – one of the most basic acts of charity – but also to keep those individuals at home for their own good and/or that of the larger community.”
Bilingual International will serve as fiscal sponsor for St. Louis Food Angels for the next 90 days, as the two organizations mobilize and coordinate their volunteer bases to assist homebound seniors, people with disabilities, and those with pre-existing conditions that place them at high risk (this last category also includes individuals already diagnosed with COVID-19 and in self-quarantine). The initiative will provide last-mile deliveries for food pantries and existing food resources, pre-paid grocery delivery for homebound individuals of means, and procurement/delivery for individuals without means. While Bilingual International will retain its service mandate for working with foreign-born individuals in these categories, the joint initiative will serve individuals regardless of country of origin, and hopes to provide support for organizations involved in the Homebound Older Adults and People with Disabilities Coordinated Response Initiative.
“We’re excited to partner with Bilingual International Assistant Services on this project,” said St. Louis Food Angels’ Co-President Kay Park, an MD/PhD student at Washington University. “It provides our organization with a chance to draw on their experience to help scale up and professionalize our efforts. And none of it would be possible without our tireless volunteers, whose commitment to a healthy and equitable St. Louis community keeps this moving.” St. Louis Food Angels has goals beyond the COVID-19 pandemic focusing on food deserts and finding systemic approaches to addressing the association between food insecurity and the prevalence of chronic illnesses. But, for the time being, supporting vulnerable communities and individuals at a disproportionate risk for COVID-19 morbidity is front and center.
Bilingual International Assistant Services (bilingualstl.org) is a mental health and social services 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization in St. Louis, Missouri that specializes in multilingual, clinical services for foreign-born populations. Their mission is to ensure equal access to healthcare, mental health, and social services for all, regardless of national origin or language ability, through the advocacy, education, and direct multilingual services that they provide.
St. Louis Food Angels (stlouisfoodangels.com) is a volunteer-driven food security and public health initiative, whose mission is to serve at-risk community members by handling last-mile deliveries for partner nonprofits, providing direct grocery delivery services and donating healthy food boxes to those in need.