Business has been put on hold throughout Mercer County, but hunger is something that can’t – especially for those who may have been struggling to feed their households before the pandemic resulted in furloughed employees and closed businesses.
That is why some of Mercer County’s local food organizations have changed the way they meet that need, even if the goal has remained the same.
At the Prince of Peace Center in Farrell, CEO Jennifer Wallace said the normal daily food distribution can serve about 40 to 75 clients, depending on the time of the month, with about 26 clients being served last week. However, the term “client” does not necessary reflect the particular number of people, and some can include households with multiple people.
For the regular food distribution, clients receive food on the third Thursday of the month. While these distributions involved clients taking the food with them, the twice-weekly soup kitchen at Prince of Peace has had to adapt to providing containers of soup rather than being able to invite those in need to stop and eat at the center, Wallace said.
“Prior to the pandemic, because of the guidelines on how we’re funded, they had to come in and eat the meal here,” Wallace said. “Because of the pandemic, we make grab-and-go meals where we set out a few meals at a time on a table inside of the doorway, and then the staff wipes down the table in-between each meal.”
Prince of Peace receives its food from the Community Food Warehouse of Mercer County. Local businesses, caterers and restaurants used to donate extra food as well, though the pandemic has prevented further donations. Though the center’s staff have started making bread runs to the stores that would normally donate bread, Wallace said the amount has dropped from about 20 loaves to around 12 loaves.
Face-to-face applications for the food bank program are also being done over the phone. Volunteers who would normally help out at Prince of Peace can’t volunteer because of the pandemic’s social distancing measures. Instead, the center’s 18 staff members have taken on the additional duties of cooking, washing and packaging, Wallace said.
“The staff here has been doing an amazing job stepping up and doing things with the food distribution and the food kitchen,” Wallace said.
Like the Prince of Peace Center, the Good Shepherd Center in Greenville also receives food from the Community Food Warehouse. However, Administrative Assistant Marj Stubert said there is also a network of 24 area churches that help support the Greenville center, as well as local donations.
Due to the pandemic, food at the Good Shepherd Center’s food bank can no longer be self-serve. Instead, volunteers take information from someone registered with the center when they arrive to pick up food as-need throughout the month, and then take it outside to the person, Stubert said.
“We have over 300 on our client list, but people traditionally are not coming in every month. They’re free to come when they need it,” Stubert said.
So far, Stubert said the center has not had a noticeable uptick in people registered with the center’s food bank. About 230 households were served in March, which amounts to roughly 460 individuals. However, there was an increase in the number of people registering for emergency food, with four emergency distributions last Friday, compared to the normal one or two emergencies per month.
Part of this could be due to the closure of schools, with parents now trying to provide three meals a day for their children compared to just breakfast and supper during the school year. Stubert said the need in the community has not yet surpassed the center’s ability to provide.
“We saw pictures of California and Pittsburgh where people were lined up for miles and miles to receive food, but luckily we haven’t been totally inundated,” Stubert said.
Like the Prince of Peace Center, the Good Shepherd Center would normally augment the packaged meals received from the Community Food Warehouse with food donated by local entities such as Walmart, St. Paul’s Senior Living Center or UPMC Horizon-Greenville. But since the beginning of the pandemic, Stubert said those in the community have begun making more monetary donations for the center to buty any food it needs.
“We continue to get food, but the community has been extremely generous in supporting the Good Shepherd Center,” Stubert said.
But unlike those two organizations, the Sharpsville Community Food Pantry at St. Bartholomew Church in Sharpsville is not affiliated with the Community Food Warehouse. It is a self-sustaining community food pantry that helps about 250 families every month. However, the food provided by the pantry is supplemental food assistance, which Father Matthew Strickenberger said can help people get through the end of the month.
“We provide enough so that anyone who needs it can get through the gaps, but if their need is greater then we can plug them into the Salvation Army or Prince of Peace, or agencies that can help provide them with more substantial assistance,” Strickenberger said.
For the pantry’s monthly distribution on the third Monday of each month, those in need are invited to a hot breakfast of coffee, doughnuts and scrambled eggs, where people can socialize as well as getting the food they need, although the pandemic ended the breakfast aspect of the distribution, Strickenberger said.
“It’s a great time for community and being together but that can’t happen, which is really a loss, although we can still give food assistance,” Strickenberger said.
Since April was the month of Easter, Strickenberger said the latest distribution was a little different. Those in need received gift cards for D’Onofrio’s Food Center in Hermitage, where people could buy what food they needed for Easter dinner. Similar gift card distributions have been held for Christmas and Thanksgiving, where Strickenberger said the cards allow people to prepare their own meals for the holidays.
During their normal distributions, the food pantry provides non-perishables such as pastas or canned goods, which are donated through a few collection points throughout Sharpsville. Those who need food in an emergency can call the church throughout the month. Strickenberger said donations have seen an increase since the beginning of the pandemic.
“That’s been a huge blessing for us, especially as we go shopping for food to prepare for the distribution,” Strickenberger said.
DONATIONS TO THE food pantries may be sent to The Good Shepherd Center, Box 422, Greenville, PA, 16125; Prince of Peace Center, 502 Darr Ave., Farrell, PA 16121; and the Sharpsville Community Food Pantry at the St. Bartholomew Church, 311 W. Ridge Ave., Sharpsville, PA 16150 or through the food pantry’s Facebook page.