Photo via MLK Center

For Heather Strout, executive director of the Dr. Martin Luther King Community Center in Newport, it’s the stories from people lining up for the center’s food pantry that are heartbreaking, people “who have never had to come to a food pantry before.”

Over these last six weeks as they have seen their jobs disappear to a raging pandemic they have come for help, like the young teenage boy who filled a grocery cart and brought food home to his mother. When the boy returned, Heather said, he told her that his “mother was crying she was so grateful … you saved our family.”

“It made me feel hope because we could help,” Heather said, but “saddened” because so many now are in need.

“Our numbers are going to be way up through the fall and beyond,” Heather said. Already, in these past six weeks the center provided food for more 2,500 individuals. In 2019, she said, the center served 4,300. Individuals can come to the food pantry every two weeks.

Newport has been particularly hard hit because of its reliance upon a tourism industry that has been devasted. Even before the governor banned the festivals – folk, jazz and music – the industry was reeling. Evan Smith at Discover Newport had to lay off 18 of 22 staff, and hotels and restaurants have been mainly empty. Smith and others have projected that many small businesses may not survive, and nationally there have been predictions that as many as 40 percent of restaurants may not reopen.  

For Heather, these past few weeks have only reinforced her belief to “not to take what I have for granted. It may be an inconvenience because I cannot get my hair done or sit down at a restaurant. It puts it in perspective.”

“None of us were prepared for this,” she said, overwhelmed by the initial upsurge of people seeking help.

But in the weeks since the community has responded. In Portsmouth, an emergency food pantry opened, and others throughout Aquidneck Island that had been closed reopened. Newport Mental Health put up several homeless in a motel, with the MLK Center providing those individuals and families with food.

The MLK Center, Heather said, continues to run its breakfast program for the homeless, and the numbers, she said have remained steady. Instead of a sit-down breakfast, individuals receive take out. 

The community has responded well, Heather said, with financial contributions. The MLK Center has asked people to donate money rather than food to limit the number of people who are handling the food.

And they are beginning a new program, working with local caterers who have been hit extremely hard by the cancellation of so many events. Heather said the MLK Center will be buying prepared frozen meals from caterers.