Food Pantry at Berachah Church Emphasizes Dignity of Those in Need

Citizen’s Call

When Jeannette Hood started looking into launching a food pantry at the Berachah Church, she was counseled against it. A lot of work, people depending on you, the need for organizing a consistent volunteer crew and figuring out how to upgrade a run-down church building into a viable facility were some of the initial challenges. Yet more than two years later, “it’s a ministry . . .taken on a life of its own,” she reflects.

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Begun in October 2009, the pantry has served more than 3,000 households in the last six months. They have about 400 families on their registration list and assist more than 100 of them in an average week. The proportion that is from Cheltenham is not known, but at least 20 percent of the sign-ups are from this corner of Montgomery County.

Thursday mornings can be hectic as people wait their turn to be escorted through a neat but compact grocery area consisting of a wide variety of canned and boxed nutritional items from peanut butter to soups, tuna fish, pasta, selected meats and much more. Meanwhile, the Philabundance truck barrels into the parking lot with next week’s supplies and that means immediate unloading and checking paperwork. The work gets done as the team of volunteers go about their business assisting customers and unloading groceries. The average quantity of food picked up on this day is about 32 lb. per household.

Friday afternoons, when the fresh produce is trucked in, attracts additional patrons who can choose from squash, apples, bananas,oranges, artichokes, grapefruits, depending upon the shipment for that week. Sometimes fresh baked goods are also available.

When Hood and other Church members were researching operating models for the pantry, they settled on the “choice food” approach, where people tour the shelves and decide for themselves what they want – within their weekly allotment – rather than get handed a box of various items which they may or may not use. “It’s hard to ask for help,” she says of the people who use the service. Their mission emphasizes the essential need to preserve the dignity of those who are struggling through difficult times. There are no income or other eligibility requirements, just a simple registration process. Anyone who says they are in need is welcome.

After a while people begin to open up to Hood and her staff. Many are working but still not making ends meet. “The point is not to have to make choices between food on the table and fixing a washing machine.” The pantry helps those who need an extra boost for a week or two as well as those who have been coming regularly since they opened.

As the pantry’s capacity increases, allotments may go from a fixed amount to one based on household size, but that will be down the road. To meet the need out there, the church is hoping to take advantage of a new program through Philabundance, its primary partner and food source and the largest distributor of food to those in need in the Delaware Valley. Called “Grocers Against Hunger,” the strategy is to pick up perishable items that supermarkets are removing from their shelves and get them to people at risk for hunger. If Philabundance is able to bring the program to Berachah, the pantry’s service capacity will increase substantially.

To this point, with the help of a number of nearby contributors of food and funds, the relatively small congregation has managed a prodigious undertaking while spending about $8,000 out of its own pocket in the past year. Hood emphasizes that they have been conservative in their approach. Contributors large and small supplementing the effort include Cheltenham students from Myers, Cheltenham Elementary, Cedarbrook and the High School, Boy Scout Troop 22, employees at the Cheltenham Post Office, “Two Peas in a Pod” in Glenside, a few of the Church’s allied organizations and friends in Philadelphia and the ShopRite and Pathmark local supermarkets.

Hood, who has been active in PTOs at the High School and at Cheltenham Elementary, is especially excited about collaborations with the schools around food drives. “It’s so much fun and so exciting to have contact with the schools. I have a lot of relationships there.” She and her husband have four children in Cheltenham schools.

The best way to donate is to write a check, large or small, since dollars are stretched to the max when they can purchase in bulk from Philabundance. A 30 lb. box of meat, for example, can be had for as little as $5.70 and canned goods at a rate of 17 cents per pound.

The Bachrach Church Food Pantry, located at 400 Ashbourne Road, is open from 9 to 11:30 am on Thursdays for groceries and 1:30 to 2:30 pm on Fridays for fresh produce. They can always use a hand.

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