Despite Pantry Closures, Hungry Have Options in North Central

December 2, 2018

Deborah Andujar, the social service director for Fitchburg's Salvation Army, stands inside the agency's food pantry on Friday. The pantry is helping more clients with the recent closure of other pantries. SENTINEL & ENTERPRISE/JOHN LOVE Sentinel and Enterprise staff photos can be ordered by visiting our SmugMug site.

FITCHBURG -- While two food pantries have closed in recent months, there are still plenty of resources available for those seeking help.

The Leona Fleming Food Pantry run by the Montachusett Opportunity Council closed its doors in September, just a few months after a pantry previously run by the United Friends of Fitchburg before its operation was assumed by MOC also closed.

MOC Executive Director Kevin Reed said the closure decisions were based off of dwindling resources, declining participation, and a choice to divert the nonprofit’s attention to some of the other social services programs it runs like meals for elders, meals for students on summer vacation, and meals for people diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, while moving away from the traditional food- pantry model.

“If you want people to be able to sustain themselves and start acquiring food through other means, we would have needed more capacity (at these two pantries),” said Reed. “If we’re just at a point where we’re just handing people a bag of food, we thought there are other people doing that much better than we are.”

Of the 11 other food pantries in Leominster and Fitchburg that MOC is referring former patrons to, Ginny’s Helping Hand and the local chapter of the Salvation Army are picking up much of the slack.

The pantry managed by Salvation Army social worker Deborah Andujar is less than half a mile away from the former Leona Fleming pantry and has been seeing new clients coming in since the closure in September.

Andujar said her pantry is roughly 20 percent busier now, though part of that spike could be due to the seasonal increase of patron traffic during the holiday season.

While the Salvation Army only has a limited amount of food to disperse, the funding they receive from nonprofits like the United Way and the food they are given from the Worcester County Food Bank is reflective of the number of people they report serving. If more people start coming to her food pantry, Andujar said there’s a higher chance she will be given more food to give out.

Since taking on the additional clients from the closed pantries, the Salvation Army has expanded its accessibility, allowing patrons to now visit twice a month, instead of the single monthly visits that were previously allowed.

However, the number of volunteers Andujar has to work with remains the same.

Volunteers needed

“We don’t have a lot of staff here and we do things by appointment, so that’s where my issue would be,” she said. “We could use some volunteers.”

Ginny’s Helping Hand Executive Director Sue Chalifoux Zephir said the number of people coming into her food pantry each month is up from the normal average of 850 being reported prior to the closures.

About 1,100 people received food from Ginny’s Helping Hand in October and Chalifoux Zephir said she expects the monthly average to stay that high for the time being.

“We do pick up the slack when other pantries close and we do see a bump, but we have the capacity to take care of those people who might have gone there,” she said. “The Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and the Spanish American Center all have food pantries... I haven’t heard any other organization saying they’re hearing of people now being turned away or not having access.”

MOC’s Reed, explaining the closures of its pantries, said most people don’t always understand how a pantry operates from a financial and staffing perspective.

“A lot of people think food pantries are just built off the backs of generous people who give up their Saturdays to volunteer, but it’s so much more complex than that,” said Reed. “One of the issues we kept running into was there were really scarce resources available to actually operate these pantries.”

The Leona Fleming Food Pantry was running at an annual cost of $75,000 a year, much of which was paid for by fundraising done by MOC. Reed said that only 360 families visited it last year, compared to the 500 people that were annually reported in the past. The United Neighbors of Fitchburg food pantry, Reed said, would have cost even more money to keep open.

“The idea of trying to start a food pantry over there again is impossible,” he said. “All of the equipment was bad by the time we got there. It would be like rebuilding from the ground up.”

Money that MOC was using to keep the pantries open is now being funneled into other programming with a new emphasis on behavioral health services, however Reed said the closures don’t indicate that there is less of a need for food pantries in the region.

Looking ahead to the future, Reed said MOC will start looking into ways to approach food insecurity from angles that will be better at promoting self sufficiency. He referenced the region’s current under utilization of SNAP benefits, and the possibility of working to educate people on the program or helping improve access to businesses accepting SNAP, as one possibility.

“We’re trying to get people to shift and think a little differently about food insecurity while understanding that food pantries are still essential,” he said. “People have to eat tonight, but we have to find other ways to invest in both avenues.”

Chalifoux Zephir approved of MOC’s strategy.

“We’re a food pantry and that’s primarily what we do,” she said. “I’m happy to focus on proving food from our pantry and happy to hear MOC wants to focus on helping people get on with their lives and get off of assistance.”

Follow Peter Jasinski on Twitter @PeterJasinski53

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