Food pantry serves growing hunger in suburbia

News Source: Philadelphia Inquirer


Posted: March 12, 2013

INquirerAmid the lawn grass and grace of a middle-class patch of Montgomery County, families aren’t getting enough to eat.

So people crowd each week into the Seeds of Hope food pantry in Dresher, part of Upper Dublin Township, where, outwardly anyway, all seems well.

“The need is here,” said Jim Galloway, a nondenominational Protestant minister from Abington Township who can find only part-time work and uses the pantry to get by. He was visiting Seeds of Hope to find food for dinner for his 64th birthday that day.

“This pantry keeps us afloat. I just never thought I’d be here.”

That remark is often echoed by suddenly floundering suburbanites used to easier lives and full refrigerators.

Part of the Chelten Baptist Church, the tiny but well-stocked pantry at first seemed out of place to many local residents – a Goodwill store abutting a Nordstrom.

But suburban poverty is rising. In the 2000s, the number of poor living in U.S. suburbs grew by 53 percent compared with 23 percent in cities, according to Elizabeth Kneebone, suburban poverty expert at the Brookings Institution.

Need at suburban food pantries in Pennsylvania and New Jersey has risen 29 percent in the last year, said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, the area’s largest hunger-relief agency and a partner of Seeds of Hope. Clark added, “We don’t see anything to suggest the need will diminish soon.”

In Montgomery County alone, the number of people using food stamps between December 2007 (the start of the recession) and November 2012 rose 117 percent, according to calculations by the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.

Suburban hunger is well understood by Sandy Knight, director of compassion ministries at Chelten and pantry coordinator.

“People are surprised when they hear about the pantry because, as you drive through town, you don’t pass anything that looks like public housing,” Knight said. “But don’t be fooled. A family with a car can still be on the verge of losing everything.”

The church started the pantry in 2008. Back then, as the recession was deepening, 30 church families had lost jobs.

The church decided to act, Knight said. To help finance the pantry, church officials canceled a children’s musical production and shuttered some clubs.

“I know the raw feeling of losing a job,” said Knight, 47, who was laid off from an architectural designer’s job during the recession. “It was the same week my husband was laid off. I was curled up on a couch with the phone ringing from bill collectors.”

In the Dresher area since the recession, many middle-class people suffered layoffs, then burned through unemployment benefits and savings, Knight said. Others have been downsized, suddenly wrestling with mortgages and property taxes that once were manageable.

“Then the spouse is laid off,” Knight said. “It all becomes insurmountable.”

A number of clients are elderly, finding themselves living longer as savings run down and out.

The pantry has grown to serve 700 individuals a week within an eight-mile radius, Knight said. Clients are from towns such as Ambler, Horsham, Hatboro.

“People look at the homes here and think we have it all,” said Sonya Herder, 47, a pantry customer from North Hills laid off from a marketing job in 2010. “But this economy has hit everywhere, not just the inner city.”

The other day, the small pantry smelled like basil and mint, purposely placed like air freshener by a pantry volunteer. The pantry gets 7,000 pounds of food a week, much of it from Philabundance and stores such as Trader Joe’s.

The food is endlessly appreciated, noted Jim Lewis, the 26-year-old pantry director, who said he understands what he calls the “brokenness” of poverty.

“It’s a very humbling thing to have to use a pantry in the suburbs,” Lewis said. “It’s hard for a divorced mom who grew up in the suburbs and now needs a food pantry that she didn’t know existed.”

Lewis told of a Hatboro school principal who phoned Seeds of Hope on behalf of a student who had not eaten dinner in three days.

“I spoke with the mom, who said she and her two children had just moved into an apartment and were struggling,” Lewis said. Come by, he told her.

“Three feet through the door she starts crying, saying, ‘Thank you, I’ll pay you back.’ ”

Not necessary, Lewis told her.

“We build relationships so people don’t feel like it’s just a handout,” he said. “We know their story. We know their struggle.”

That’s true, said Luther Watts, 55, of Glenside, blind in his left eye and the sole caregiver of his handicapped father.

Through the years, Watts has been laid off from jobs with a factory, a nearby township, and a supermarket. New work isn’t on the horizon.

“So I’m here,” Watts said. “There’s always problems in the suburbs. We just don’t throw our trash around like in the city.

“But we need help, too.”

Contact Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or

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