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Food pantry needs: ‘It’s never going to go down’

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There are days when Patti M. Conger literally breathes a sigh of relief when the big truck from Food Bank of Central New York in Syracuse rolls up outside her office in the basement at Ogdensburg City Hall.

Ms. Conger is director of the Ogdensburg Neighborhood Center and its food pantry. Food Bank makes deliveries twice a month.

“There are times I keep my fingers crossed that we get through the month,” she said. “It’s scary.”

What scares Ms. Conger and many of the 27 churches, neighborhood centers and other organizations in St. Lawrence County that get food pantry deliveries from Food Bank, and others that don’t, is a need for their services that looks never to wane in an economy strapped by unemployment and home finances so strained that groceries are a luxury.

Ms. Conger’s food pantry statistics tell a grim story. In 2011, there were 4,960 individual requests for food. So far this year, there have been 5,914 requests. More families are signing up for the first time: 27 this month, 35 in August, 18 in July, 14 in June and 16 each in April and May.

No sign of subsiding demand for Ms. Conger, whose agency’s service area extends beyond Ogdensburg to Lisbon, Brier Hill, DePeyster, Hammond, Heuvelton, Morristown, Rensselaer Falls and Waddington.

“It’s never going to go down,” she said.

For those churches and organizations that aren’t on Food Bank’s delivery itinerary, donations are appreciated, often crucial.

In Lisbon, food pantries are run by several churches. The distribution is housed in the Lisbon Wesleyan Church building.

“People from different churches drop food in throughout the week,” said Pastor Jeff Bakos. “Just about daily something is being dropped off. There is a small budget, about $100, that is used to fill in the gaps. It’s basically a shop. People are given two bagfuls of food. It’s really designed to be a three-day emergency supply of food. We get everything from macaroni and cheese to Lipton iced tea. It’s a community effort.”

Rev. Bakos also sees no sign of less need on the horizon.

“I can only see demand increasing as the weather gets cold,” he said. “We have kerosene as well. We advertise it in our church.”

Critical Donations

Donations are essential even for Food Bank clients because the Syracuse agency’s deliveries often account for an lesser percentage of a pantry’s total supply.

“Our food pantry is about 85 percent donations from the local community with the rest coming from the Food Bank,” said Ogdensburg Salvation Army Capt. Angela S. Shaffer. “The food pantry in the last three months has served the average of 55 families with July being the highest due to the Seaway Festival, serving 63 families. We were up in family due to it being the summer months with the kids being home. During the school year, the average is about 48 families.”

The Salvation Army serves Heuvelton, Lisbon, Ogdensburg, and Morristown.

Starting Monday, pantry visits will be reduced from every 30 days to every 60 days due to a shortage of donations.

The Salvation Army wants to change that.

“Donations are down because, unfortunately, the Salvation Army is not well known for our food pantry here in Ogdensburg, and that is something we are trying to change,” Capt. Shaffer said. “Normally they are allowed to come to the pantry every 30 days but they also can go to the Neighborhood Center as well. We are working with the Neighborhood Center to stop the duplication of services. This has happened for quite some time. Most food drives go to the Neighborhood Center in this community so that is why we are trying to work together with them.”

Ms. Conger said that grant-bought supplies from Food Bank account for between 30 and 40 percent of the Neighborhood Center pantry’s budget. The donations that fill in the gap are appreciated.

“The churches are wonderful,” she said. “They’ll call and ask what are you running low on.”

During the summer months, Ms. Conger added, the gardens at the Ogdensburg and Riverview correctional facilities are a source of 1,500 pounds of produce a week.

“The prisons are our saving grace,” she said.

Swelling Demand

In Hopkinton, the local food pantry at Town Hall last year served an estimated 300 people from 80 families.

“We make certain we have food enough for that many people each month although our numbers vary,” said volunteer Georgia Macy. “We do expect our numbers to increase during the winter months as the fuel bills and increased electric bills impact our patrons’ budgets.”

As the holidays approach, the pantry will distribute toys and games that have been donated, as well as hold raffles for turkeys that have been donated. Gift distribution will be held on Dec. 14. The pantry also offers used clothing and in November will distribute donated winter clothing and jackets.

“Our food pantry relies entirely upon donations to be able to purchase food,” Ms. Macy said. “We are not sponsored by any agency. Comlinks in Malone had delivered food products to our pantry each month, but they are closing their doors the end of September and are no longer able to help us. This is a big blow to us and all local pantries.”

The Helping Hands Food Pantry which services Potsdam, Norwood, Colton, South Colton Parishville and Pierrepont, Director Jane Wells said they have noticed a steady increase in the number of families they serve, a number that has now risen to between 50 and 60 families per month.

“A lot of families are return people, but 8 to 10 percent of people who have never come to us before,” she said.

Ms. Wells said there could be any number of reasons for the increased demand, including recent changes to the school lunch program, food stamp reductions and the rising cost of pretty much everything.

“With the cost of everything going up, that makes it difficult for people in the middle to low range,” she said, adding, “A lot of people have had hours cut from their jobs so they have less to work with.”

In Canton, the number of people seeking food from the Canton Church & Community Program has jumped significantly compared to this time a year ago, said Director Catherine E. Mathews. So far this year, the agency has provided enough food for 27,180 meals, compared to 12,879 during the same time period a year ago.

Ms. Mathews expects the trend will continue as clients report that they’re spending a greater part of their income to pay rising utility bills, including electric and heat.

“People are running out of unemployment,” she said. “I’m seeing people in middle age who lost their jobs and spent everything they had saved.”

Roughly, 1,812 individuals have been served since January, compared with 1,041 in 2011.

In terms of families, the volume has increased from 471 to 726.

Community Outreach

Allowing people to choose the foods they want from the food pantry has encouraged more people to visit, she said.

“We’ve done more outreach and we’ve changed the style,” Ms. Mathews said. “People are referring each other.”

The agency stocks its shelves with food from Food Bank, donations from area churches and food drives held by civic groups and college students.

New clients are also heading to the Canton’s other food pantry, the Neighborhood Center, 5 West St.

Lisa M. VanKirk, the new director, said the agency serves roughly 175 families, which increases by at least one or two families every month.

Some have turned to the pantry because their food stamp allocation has been cut, they’ve been laid off from work or they’re having a hard time making ends meet because utility expenses have increased.

“They may be making minimum wage,” Ms. VanKirk said. “They’re supplementing what they get at the grocery store with the food pantry.”

Both of the Canton food pantries are accepting donations of food and other items, including canned fruits and vegetables, pasta, peanut butter, spaghetti sauce, cereal and boxed foods.

Ms. VanKirk said donations of can openers, personal hygiene items, laundry soap, dish soap, cookbooks and other households are also useful.

Both agencies are also accepting gently used winter clothing.

“We appreciate everything that’s given to the food pantry and it goes out to people who really need it,” Ms. VanKirk said.

In her new role, Ms. VanKirk said she’s trying to teach people how they can stretch their food dollars by learning new cooking methods, like cooking with dried beans which are less expensive than canned.

At the Hammond Food Pantry, according to co-director Joan V. Hadlock, over 80 families from Hammond, Morristown and Chippewa Bay are served monthly.

The pantry also distributes free used clothing.

“Our numbers were actually down a little in the summer,” said co-director Joan V. Hadlock. “So far we haven’t received any newcomers. We may get a few more in the winter, but we’re more than able to keep up with the demand.”

The Tri-Town Community Services Food Pantry serves the towns of Brasher, Lawrence and Stockholm.

“We have an increase almost every month,” Ida May TenEyck, who serves as the pantry’s director. “I assume there will be an increase this winter.”

Ms. TenEyck said over the past year the pantry has served between 250 to 280 people spread out over 75 to 90 families.

And while they do receive a grant that is used to purchase food, Ms. TenEyck said the grant is simply not enough to keep them afloat.

“We do buy food from the Food Bank of Central New York, but we have to buy it,” she said. “We do get a grant, but that’s not enough to buy three months of food, and we’re open all 12 months of the year.”

Making matters even worse is the announcement that Comlinks in Malone is closing its doors.

“They gave us baked goods, juices, meats, produce and things from Hannaford, Price Chopper and Walmart,” she said. “We’re going to have a huge hole and I don’t know how we’re going to fill it. We are really going to need a lot of donations.”

Staff writers Sean Ewart, Benny Fairchild, Sue Mende and Amanda Purcell contributed to this report.

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