Catholic Free Press

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  • Jan
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New model of food pantry helps people maintain their dignity

Posted By January 26, 2012 | 1:03 pm | Lead Story #1, Local


See Photo Gallery of  Blessing Food Pantry


By Margaret M. Russell

SOUTHBRIDGE – Father Peter Joyce would like to see his parish’s food pantry closed.
Not because he doesn’t have enough volunteers. More than 40 people help out at the Blessed John Paul II Parish, St. Vincent de Paul Society food pantry.
Not because carrying 5,000 pounds of food up and down stairs six times a month is too much work.
The parish has a new pantry site in its parish center that is all on one level with easy access.
And not even because there is a lack of community support. Trinity Catholic Academy staff and students help out with food drives. Holy Trinity Episcopal, Sturbridge Federated, Elm Street Congregational, Central Baptist and St. Anne and St. Patrick churches all give aid to the pantry. So do local food markets, businesses and organizations such as Stop & Shop, Big Bunny, Shaw’s, McGrath Insurance, Penney’s Appliances, Sturbridge Rotary, Southbridge Lions, Knights of Columbus, Ocean State Job Lot, Savers Bank and Fallon Community Health Plan, to name a few.
No, Father Joyce has a larger vision.
“I am looking forward to that day when our community doesn’t need a food pantry. … When everybody has enough and no one is in need,” he told a crowd gathered Monday for the blessing of the  food pantry by Bishop McManus.
Until that day comes, the Blessed John Paul II Parish food pantry will continue an operation that Father Joyce started more than 20 years ago.
For the past month the pantry has been located in lower level of the parish center on Hamilton Street between Trinity Catholic Academy and the former St. Mary’s rectory.
Before blessing the food pantry, Bishop McManus led a prayer service where he prayed that “all in the community have enough to live healthfully.”
Pastor Mary Gusftason of the Episcopal church read the Matthew 25 Gospel. And Father Joyce  reflected on the history of the food pantry that served 559 people in December.
The new location allows it to be set up like a grocery store to give people a sense of dignity, Father Joyce said. Where before volunteers pre-bagged food and handed it to people out of the rectory kitchen, now people have the option to choose things they like to eat.
“We can serve more people with less food,” he explained, “and stretch our budget.”
No more getting cans of green beans that no one in the household will eat. Or a large jar of jelly when a family already has enough at home, explained volunteer Stan Motyka. People can now choose what they need.
William Mason, a key volunteer, said that he and Father Joyce looked on the Internet for different models of food pantries and liked one they saw out West that allowed people to pick out food from shelves with the help of a volunteer shopper’s helper.
“Our volunteers were in the basement next door bagging food. Now they have contact with clients,” Mr. Mason said. They work from a structured list so that people get all the food groups covered.
“All of a sudden volunteers feel better about helping someone personally. They empathize with people and let them tell their stories,” he said.
Mr. Mason said they started a senior supplement program after noticing that no one over age 65 was coming to the food pantry.
“We realized that they were too proud to come and stand in line with the younger people,” he said.     So in 2009 the food pantry opened two Wednesdays a month just for senior citizens. They were expecting about a dozen people; 30 came. A year into the program they had a clientele of more than 75 seniors. Last month there were 109, Mr. Mason said.
Living on fixed incomes the seniors tell stories about how hard it is to pay for medicine. When people hear that ‘Gram is hungry,’ they give generously to the food pantry, Mr. Mason said.
About 12 years ago Mr. Mason joined parishioner Jim Powers in making food runs to the Worcester County Food Bank and then went out in to the community to cultivate partners.
Monday, representatives from Stop & Shop presented the food pantry with a check for $3,600; proceeds from the Sturbridge store’s annual Thanksgiving food drive. The store sells paper turkeys to support the local pantry and the corporation supplements what is collected, said store manager Tom Scott. A box where shoppers can deposit food for the pantry is in the store year round.
Jean MacMurray, head of the Worcester County Food Bank, attended the blessing ceremony to offer her congratulations to the parish.
“They do amazing work,” she said afterwards.
“They are the heart and soul of the hunger-relief services,” she said.
Ms. MacMurray said the food bank, located in Shrewsbury, serves 150 agencies in Worcester County and last year provided 6 million pounds of food for 85,000 people. More than ever before, she said.
The majority of the pantries are run by faith-based groups, according to Ms. MacMurray.
The Blessed John Paul II Parish food pantry serves people from Southbridge and Sturbridge without regard to religious affiliation. The area went though a tough year economically and coping with several weather-related disasters.
“In an area that was especially hard hit, there is such goodness and great good will,” Ms. MacMurray  said.


PHOTO: Jean MacMurray and William Mason stand near the shelves of food at the St. Vincent de Paul Food Pantry at Blessed John Paul II Parish in Southbridge. Photo by Len Lazure