Area’s first mobile food pantry to begin operations in May Sacred Heart Parish Outreach Program to convert 17-seat bus which will deliver food to people in need and without transportation to a local food pantry
The Sacred Heart Parish Community Outreach Program’s bus is in the process of being converted to the area’s first mobile food pantry. Service is scheduled to begin in May.
By Nancy Kriz MONROE — While most people think nothing of having cupboards filled with food or picking up fresh produce, meats and dairy products at the grocery store, it’s a weekly struggle for Josianne Sultana. Unlike most, she relies on the generosity of local food pantries to provide her with the staples stocked in a kitchen. “I have a diagnosis of mental illness and I cannot work and I’ve been on public assistance for a long time,” said Sultana, a Harriman resident. “ I have food stamps and they don’t go a long way. There were days I didn’t have the money to go to ShopRite.” While the food pantries at the Monroe United Methodist Church and the Monroe Presbyterian Church have generously helped her, Sultana mostly relies on the food pantry operated by the Sacred Heart Parish Outreach Program, which brings her a weekly box of food in addition to hot meals. Sacred Heart’s food pantry, also known as the Our Father’s Kitchen Emergency Food Pantry, is an outgrowth of the parish’s Back Pack and Summer Lunch programs. “Sometimes I can go to ShopRite,” she said. “I look at people and they’re putting stuff in their carts and not worrying about how to pay for it. Some people have to count every item they buy. I have to do that. I never thought I’d be in a situation like this.” But she is, and she’s not alone. Area food pantry officials reinforce the issue that hunger remains real in the greater Monroe area. They have regular clients who stop by for weekly boxed and canned goods in addition to other food items, considered to be the basics which can help decrease the lack of food in their homes. Maybe that’s due to a loss of a job or other circumstances that just unexpectedly happen. For some, the lack of food is further complicated by the inability to get to a place where it can be picked up. “I drive,” Sultana said, “but I don’t have a car.” $17,500 food bank grantBut a new program, made possible through a $17,500 Northeast New York Regional Food Bank System grant, is funding the Sacred Heart Parish Community Outreach Program’s conversion of an unused bus into a mobile food pantry. It will begin service next month and help people like Sultana. “The bus hasn’t been in operation for over a year,” said Betsy Johnston, outreach program director. “It was always designed to pick up people and bring them to Our Father’s Kitchen for a weekly hot meal.” But volunteers found that people were actually able to get themselves to the soup kitchen, operated in the basement of Sacred Heart Chapel on Stage Road, on Wednesday evenings. That left a 13-year-old bus - donated to the program several years back by the Dominican Sisters of Sparkill - in need of a better defined purpose. “We decided to re-purpose the bus,” said Johnston. “We found there are more and more people in need of weekly food who can’t get to a food pantry, versus the one hot meal on Wednesday evening.” ‘Hungry for so much’Sacred Heart is one of four regional pantries to receive a seed grant, intended to cover start-up costs through this September, including the conversion of the 17-seat bus to transport food. “We’ll be starting off with 25 families per week,” said Johnston, adding that’s in addition to the 550 to 600 people the Sacred Heart pantry serves monthly. “I’ve got people calling me saying they can’t get to the food pantry. They’re shut-ins, Office for the Aging referrals and shut-ins from our own parish. They’re the people we’re initially targeting. We’re estimating that we will serve another 80 to 100 people a week for this service. They’re hungry, but they’re also ‘hungry’ for so much.” The food to stock the bus will come from Sacred Heart’s food pantry shelves. Johnston said the Methodist and Presbyterian food pantries do a phenomenal job of serving the community and the Sacred Heart pantry prides itself in supplementing their efforts, in addition to providing a “farmers market-like” food pantry of fresh produce. “We combined everything and we found there was a need for fresh vegetables, dairy, meat and eggs, the basics of a refrigerator, like a fresh market,” said Johnston. “These are things that aren’t readily in many food pantries, though that’s not to say they don’t have them, or available through food stamp benefits.” Once the mobile food pantry is operational, Johnston expects her weekly visits to the Cornwall-based Food Bank of the Hudson Valley to triple in order to additionally stock the bus. “Some produce we get for free, some we pay a certain rate for,” she said. “Some food items we can purchase for 16 cents a pound versus what’s in the grocery store. We get approximately 2,000 pounds of food very time we go, which will now be 6,000 pounds. We do get a lot of food through grants from New York State and Wakefern-ShopRite and that helps to provide the money we use to purchase items from the food bank, along with private and church funds.” That weekly $250 food bank purchase will now jump to $750. While some funding is provided, Johnston said the approximate, annualized $12,000 cost is a lot of money. “As I’m purchasing more and more, my grant money isn’t going to cover it all,” she said. “Donations can be made to the Food Bank of Hudson Valley in our name.” ‘Food is a basic right’The bus is currently in the midst of having some maintenance and repair work done. It will also have six, 110 pound coolers installed to keep meat and dairy products cold, in addition to reinforced shelving to support the weight of canned goods. Johnston is also looking for volunteer help and/or donations for new, exterior graphics and a paint job to reintroduce the bus as the mobile food pantry. “Our philosophy is if you say there’s a need, we’re here to help you,” said Johnston. “I’ve never asked for a W2 form. We’ve always had enough food for anyone who walks through our door and now on this bus. My goal is to not make people feel bad that they need food. Food is a basic right.” ‘It’s hard to ask’Sultana, who is appreciative of the forthcoming mobile deliveries, is equally grateful for that philosophy. “It’s hard, it’s very hard, thank goodness I’ve never went hungry,” she said. “Sometimes I feel embarrassed that I did something wrong but there’s no shame, this can happen to anybody. I’m doing my best. To ask for help, but not being rejected, is wonderful. It’s hard to ask. If people make it hard for you, you won’t ask again. That’s not the case here. It’s good to know there’s some place to go.” Her gratitude extends to those who support the food pantries, too. “There are good people out there and people want to help,” she added. “People shouldn’t say, ‘Oh, I won’t make a difference.’ If everyone gave a little and stayed aware, they’d realize there’s people who would benefit from their donations. It’s good they’re doing what they’re doing. It makes me feel good, and not forgotten.”