Every day, Central New York families are finding it harder and harder to put food on the table.
The Brewerton Food Pantry saw a 14 percent increase in the number of families it serves between 2011 and 2012, and that trend seems to be continuing into 2013.
“I registered two new families on Thursday, so we’re constantly getting new people,” said longtime volunteer Lauren Lalley.
Pantry coordinator Deb Lombard agreed.
“We’re getting a lot of people who are working; they’re just not making enough to pay their mortgage or their rent, their utilities, their doctor’s bills, and food seems to fall by the wayside,” Lombard said. “And some of them don’t get as much food stamp assistance as they used to. They’re cutting back on certain things. We try to meet the needs of those people as much as we can.”
For that reason, pantries like the one in Brewerton are becoming more and more important — and more and more of a community undertaking. The pantry is a truly ecumenical effort. It’s housed at the Brewerton United Methodist Church, which has partnered with St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church, Calvary Baptist Church and Christian Church to run the operation, which covers Brewerton from the Onondaga-Oswego county line down to Cicero.
The joint effort came about when Brewerton’s churches realized their food pantries were too small to serve their communities.
“It started in the early 1990s here at this church [Brewerton United Methodist],” Lombard said. “It was basically a utility closet where you had to close the door to move around in it. That’s when our church had our pantry and St. Agnes had their own pantry. Then the minds got together and said, ‘It doesn’t make sense to have two pantries a half a mile apart [that can’t serve the needs of the population].’ So we combined with St. Agnes. We came here because we had a little more space. Then the Brewerton Christian Church, which is the old stone church in the center of town, they joined us, and then within the last two years Calvary Baptist Church joined us.”
The move has provided the Brewerton community with a much more effective pantry, as well as the ability to offer programs like client choice, where patrons, who can visit the pantry once a month, have the ability to select their own food items within certain nutritional guidelines.
“The client choice was always something that we looked to,” Lombard said. “The Food Bank looks favorably on client choice, so when it comes time to allocate grant money, it’s a best practice. You get extra points for that. We couldn’t do it before because [we were too small].”
The pantry started offering client choice earlier in 2013. The Food Bank of Central New York provides nutrition guidelines, based on the national MyPlate standard, that assign a certain number of points to each food. Pantry clients get a certain number of points based on the number of people in their families; the points are broken up into the food groups (dairy, meat/non-meat protein, fruits, vegetables, grains and miscellaneous food items). Families select the foods they want in each category up to their point totals.
“All in all, the clients have been very receptive to our new clients’ choice pantry,” Lombard said. “We’re getting some good feedback from the clients, and the Food Bank loves it because it’s something they really push. But a lot of pantries don’t have this kind of space. We were so lucky.”
Sacred Heart in Cicero has a similar program through Anna’s Pantry.
In order to encourage clients to try new things, the volunteers provide recipes made with pantry ingredients.
“Some of the foods, they don’t usually have in their diet. So we try to put out recipes, and Deb will make a recipe,” Lalley said. This past week, it was black-eyed peas. No one was taking the black-eyed peas. So she made a salsa and put out the recipe. We have all of the items in the pantry so that they could put together the salsa.”
“We have meetings and our instruction is to take something from the pantry and prepare something to offer as a meal for our meetings,” Lombard said. “And we know if we’ll eat it, our clients will eat it.”
The recipes were especially helpful in getting clients to try canned pork.
“We had 15 cases of this pork. People who’ve eaten it in the past love it, but a lot of people said, ‘Pork in a can? Yuck,’” Lalley said. “But Deb made a goulash with everything we have in the pantry. She made a chili with the pork. She made pulled pork. And they all tasted really good.”
“The recipes have really helped,” Lombard said. “People actually take the recipes. They’re right in the pantry and right next to all the stuff. The volunteers try to get them thinking beyond the normal stuff.”
The Brewerton pantry is supplied by The Food Bank of Central New York, but the community helps out, as well. The Saddle Creek neighborhood holds food drives six times a year to fill the pantry’s shelves, and communicants at all four member churches regularly donate to keep it going. It’s also helped out by CROP walks, corporate donations — Price Chopper and Panera donate bread every week —and an agreement with a Rochester-based company, St. Pauly’s Textiles, which buys used clothes donated by parishioners. The food pantry gets $40 for every 1,000 pounds of clothes it donates; the clothes are then given to people in need worldwide.
The pantry also gets a hand from the local schools.
“Brewerton Elementary has kind of adopted the food pantry as their community [outreach project],” Lombard said. “We filled three trucks with stuff from their food drive. They do two every year. The classrooms compete, and the classroom to bring in the most canned goods or perishable food items is treated to a pizza lunch.”
In addition, the school helps identify families that might benefit from the pantry’s services around Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the pantry supplies special holiday dinner baskets.
“We talk to the school nurse at the elementary, and she identifies families for us that she thinks could use the help who may never come to a pantry because of the pride thing,” Lombard said. “It’s a simple phone call. I say, ‘We’re doing these baskets. Would you like one?’ And 99 percent of the time, it’s tears and thanks, and then they start coming to the pantry, because you’ve made that introduction. They come every month. It’s kind of reaching out to families that wouldn’t come ordinarily. It’s not as scary.”
A nutritionist from The Food Bank of Central New York also provides a monthly program on the “Just Say Yes to Fruits and Vegetables” program to provide tips on healthy eating. The Brewerton pantry has acted as a pilot for the discussion program, which the Food Bank hopes to launch in other area pantries, as well.
The pantry also provides information on applying for food stamps, WIC and HEAP.
The program has a lot of support in the community, particularly from those it’s helped.
“Some clients come back and say, ‘You helped me when I needed it. I’m on my feet again, so here’s a donation,’” Lalley said.
And some don’t wait until they’re back on their feet to help.
“I have at least two clients right who get food regularly that are volunteers,” Lombard said. “They need the help, but they want to do something to give back. They don’t want a free handout.”
Those volunteers are grateful not only for the assistance the food pantry gives them, but the gratification that comes from offering a hand to others in need.
“That’s the number one thing, it’s gratifying. It makes us feel good and you get to work with wonderful people,” Lombard said. “It’s such an eye-opening experience for us. It makes us appreciate what we have. I keep saying, it could be any one of us one day. We lose our job, we have health issues, anything could happen to any one of us. So I would hope that if it was one of us, there would be people like us helping out.”
The pantry is open from 10 a.m. to noon every Tuesday and 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. every Thursday. For more information, visit brewertonumc.com/Food_Pantry.html or call 676-5528.
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.