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Food pantries full now, but worry about winter demand

Date: 11/30/2009

By the Reminder Staff

Around the region, operators of non-profit food pantries have a similar story: the demand for their services has increased in light of the economic crisis.

Although the public has responded with donations and some pantries have full shelves, the need for donations, especially during the winter, is ongoing.

Open Pantry, Springfield

In the parking lot of the Basketball Hall of Fame there was a burst of activity in the last half-hour of the 52-hour Mayflower Marathon, the annual food drive for the Open Pantry. People were driving up with bags and boxes of food on Wednesday.

There was a UPS truck with a load of food and a chef.

John O'Brien and Michael Baxendale broadcast continuously throughout the annual event sponsored by Rock 102, cajoling, pleading and threatening people and organizations for donations.

The results this year are over $66,000 in food and cash donations.

Inside a tent, the food items were scanned for value and then handed to volunteers who loaded them into waiting trucks.

Allison Maynard, the new executive director of the Open Pantry, told Reminder Publications the annual appeal came at an important time: the shelves at the Springfield food pantry were bare.

"There was nothing to give them," she said of the growing number of people who rely on the food pantry.

She noted that food pantries were founded on the basis of helping people through emergencies. Now they are an important source of food for the poor.

Maynard said the Mayflower Marathon should keep the Open Pantry stocked through March, although donations are always welcomed. The organization is seeking canned meats, soups, rice and at this time of year, turkeys. Perishable items such as fresh vegetables and fruit are accepted and given to recipients that day, she added.

Donations can be made any weekday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. with the exception of Wednesday at the pantry at 721 State St., she said.

She said there has been nearly a 17 percent increase in the number of people using the Open Pantry, and half of them are elderly.

She said she has added a food stamp caseworker to the organization to work with people new to the Open Pantry to see if they are eligible for food stamps. She said that many people are eligible but don't know it.

Maynard said that hunger is a very real problem in the Springfield area. She noted a recent e-mail she received about a woman and her daughter seeking services as they had not eaten in two days. She recalled watching a man at the Open Pantry who was so hungry he opened a canned ham he received in his bag of food in the waiting area and began eating it.

"It's na ve to say we don't have a problem with hunger," she said.

Community Survival Center, Indian Orchard

"It's not coming in as fast as its going out," said Christine Cargile, executive director of the Community Survival Center in Indian Orchard, which services the hungry in Ludlow, Hampden, Wilbraham and the Indian Orchard and 16 Acres areas of Springfield. "Though I do have to say the community has been remarkably generous for Thanksgiving."

But, as Cargile said, "Thanksgiving is only one day out of 365, and the leftovers will only take you so far."

Especially given the major uptick in demand she's been seeing recently.

"About 40 percent of the food clients that we've been working with since the beginning of the fiscal year are brand new," she said. "The perfect storm, or nightmare, is that 40 percent [of our former clients] are also returning. We're seeing people that have been functioning without our services for three or four years coming back now, and that isn't good."

As director of the only local food assistance program that's open five days a week -- the hours at Indian Orchard's 240 Main St. center are 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., Monday through Friday -- it's getting enough donations for the day-to-day support of the center that worries Cargile.

There are, she pointed out, some pretty long months between the current holiday donation drives and the next big collection push the letter carriers' food drive just before Mother's Day.

"I know everybody's in a bind, but one can [of food] makes a difference," she said. "You don't have to bring a bag of food to church, you can bring a can. Every dollar [you donate], every can will help support a food assistance program that supports the people in your area."

Cargile also stressed that food assistance programs such as hers are "divided up geographically," which means that donations to big drives such as the Mayflower Marathon or collections for Springfield's Open Pantry don't directly support her center.

"Find out where [your donation] is going and make sure it's going to the people in your neighborhood," she stressed.

The Community Survival Center accepts donations weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

East Longmeadow Food Pantry, Longmeadow Food Pantry

In the two meadows, things are doing all right -- for now.

The East Longmeadow Food Pantry, which is housed at the Pleasant View Senior Center on North Main Street, goes through phases of feast or famine, according to Carolyn Brennan, Executive Director of the Council on Aging.

"As soon as we're stocked up, we're empty again," she said.

Brennan noted that different small organizations, from Boy and Girl Scouts to the Rotary Club, have been offering to help and often give donations, but people are visiting the food pantry every day.

"Most of the people who come are under 60," Brennan said. However, the number of people coming for food hasn't increased much this autumn. Brennan stated that the pantry saw a big increase in users during the spring and that that number has been holding steady.

"We're really trying to get the word out," she said. "We're never totally full. I'm pleased with what the community has given but I don't know if they can keep it up."

Brennan added that based on how this calendar has gone financially, she expects to see more usage of the pantry in the future.

The East Longmeadow Food Pantry is currently looking for canned tuna fish, peanut butter, pre-packaged dinners, soup, cereal and personal necessities like toothpaste and toilet paper. Donations can be dropped off the senior center, located at 328 North Main St.

Longmeadow's food pantry, which opened in October, has been seeing a lot of use, according to Longmeadow Adult Center Executive Director Karen Neiman Michelman.

"Because we're new, we've been getting a tremendous amount of donations and a large variety of donations," Michelman said. "We're Longmeadow's favorite charity. People in the community want to give to their community."

The pantry, which is open on Tuesdays, has been gradually growing in the number of users each week. As winter continues, Michelman expects to see the need for the pantry continue to grow as well.

"I'm not surprised by the number of recipients," she said. "There's a real need in all communities. People don't realize it, but we have about a seven percent unemployment rate here in town. This economy has been hitting everyone hard."

Michelman added that the pantry, located at the Adult Center at 231 Maple Rd., is always looking for donations of food staples and personal care items.

"Whatever we get, we give," she explained.

Lorraine's Soup Kitchen, Chicopee

Lorraine Houle, the executive director of the food pantry and meals program that bears her name, said currently, the panty is full.

"Everyone has been very generous," she said. "It's been overwhelming. I can't say enough."

She said that donations of turkeys would be of help at this time of year. Fresh turkeys are preferable, although they can also accept frozen turkeys.

It is a good thing the public has been generous with donations as Houle has seen a marked increase in the need for the non-profit's services at its 35 Center St. location.

She said that normally 30 to 40 families come in on a daily basis for food. Now the figure is about 50. The evening meal now serves over 100 Chicopee residents.

With this kind of demand, though, Houle said the full shelves "won't last that long."

The food pantry is still looking for cash donations to complete its new facilities on Meadow Street.

Westfield Emergency Food Pantry, Westfield

The demand for food assistance has hit a record high at the Westfield Emergency Food Pantry but there's just not enough to go around to the various organizations throughout the region, according to Executive Director Rebecca Hart.

She explained the pantry has provided food assistance for 945 people this month, 290 more than last November, but quarterly allotments from the Western Massachusetts Food Bank are half of what they were the previous quarter. Hart added the Westfield community has stepped up to supplement the decreased allotments but more is still needed.

She noted perishable and non-perishable items are flying off shelves. "We had 150 dozen eggs from [the Western Massachusetts Food Bank of] Hatfield and went through it in nine days," Hart added.

She said the pantry is in need of staple foods such as milk, eggs, pasta, jarred spaghetti sauce, canned soup, peanut butter and jelly.

Hart attributed the record demand for assistance to the job losses throughout the region. "I've heard from more folks in the screening process that [they] have been laid off it's not an unwillingness to work, it's that they can't find jobs," she added.

For additional information about receiving assistance or to make a donation, visit the Westfield Emergency Food Pantry, 101 Meadow St., Westfield or 572-0802.

Parish Cupboard, West Springfield

There's a waiting line for lunch in the dining room at the Parish Cupboard in West Springfield. The room seats 12, but each day the organization feeds between 20 and 27 people, thanks to the generosity of Agawam and West Springfield communities.

Martha Tighe, executive director of the Parish Cupboard, explained the demand is great, like other cities and towns, but many individuals and groups have come through in big ways. "We received donation of 100 turkeys [for Thanksgiving] from one individual," she added.

Tighe noted about 150 families were in need of food from the Parish Cupboard's food pantry for the Thanksgiving holiday. She said 117 turkeys were donated in total in addition to trimmings provided by church groups.

"The supply cannot always meet the demand," Tighe said, adding that the community is working hard to keep up with the growing need.

Walk-ins are welcome for lunch at the Parish Cupboard, 1023 Main St., West Springfield from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

For more information on how to receive food assistance from the Parish Cupboard's food pantry or to make a donation, call 734-7969.