Northwestern Pennsylvania, Western New York food ministries see increased demand

Posted Apr 23, 2020

[Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York] It’s not the warmest way to share the love of God, but it works.

A client comes to the door of the food pantry at St. Philip’s Church in Buffalo, New York, knocks, and then steps back to observe a proper social distance. A volunteer answers, asks how many people the client is feeding, and retrieves the appropriate number of bags.

“Then we set the bags on the stoop, and back away,” said the Rev. Steve Lane, the church’s rector. “And they come forward and pick it up.”

Churches all over the Dioceses of Northwestern Pennsylvania and Western New York have joined St. Philip’s in either making adjustments to existing food ministries or undertaking new initiatives to make sure that neighbors who have been hit hard by the COVID-19 induced economic downturn have enough to eat.

Parish food pantries across both dioceses estimate that they are serving 30% to 40% more people than usual. They are also receiving increased donations from large regional food banks such as FeedMore WNY and Second Harvest of Northwestern Pennsylvania, as well as from local grocers, parishioners and community members.

“It’s bringing out the best in people around here. I am really impressed,” said Cass Shimek, administrator at the Cathedral of St. Paul in Erie, Pennsylvania, who manages the food pantry and several other outreach efforts.

At St. Philip’s, Lane, his wife, Ellyn, and four women from the congregation meet on Tuesday afternoons to pack bags of food. “Our initial number was 30, but we have increased that number to 42,” said Ellyn Lane. About 70% of their clients arrive on foot or by bus, she said.

In downtown Erie, the need is particularly acute. “We serve an area that has access to almost nothing,” Shimek said. “There is no grocery store, two small mom-and-pop corner stores, a Family Dollar and a Rite Aid. And better than 50% of people who come don’t have vehicles.”

The cathedral, which distributed almost 80 bags of food three weeks ago, and 106 bags last Friday, faced some daunting logistical challenges when the pandemic began. It had previously relied on 19 volunteers to staff its Friday food pantry, but 18 of them were at high risk from the virus. Now Shimek, Sexton Terry Bishop and the remaining volunteer, Will Hicks, do the entire job, with occasional help from the Rev. Dorothy Konyha, a deacon. Because Bishop is a firefighter, he cannot risk infection by interacting with clients, so that work falls exclusively to Shimek.

After their first distribution during the pandemic, she realized that clients were not following social distancing guidelines. “We painted a distancing path to keep our clients 6 feet from one another, which has proven to be quite successful,” she said.

Her willingness to interact with clients has also made the cathedral aware of needs that might have gone unnoticed. One of these is toilet paper. Shimek said it is selling out so quickly at the stores that are accessible on foot that shipments received at Family Dollar have been sold straight out of the box to customers who began queuing up before the store opened. “One guy stood in line two mornings at Family Dollar and still didn’t get any,” she said.

In response to the shortage, the cathedral is now sponsoring a toilet paper drive. Members of the diocese interested in helping are asked to drop toilet paper at the cathedral office next Wednesday, April 29, from 3 to 5 p.m. and next Thursday, April 30, from 10 a.m. to noon. For more information, people also can contact Shimek.

Not everyone can leave the house to shop, but the partner dioceses have found other ways for people to support those in need and those responding to the pandemic. During Holy Week and Easter Sunday, the diocese raised $3,145 for programs and organizations across the region that are meeting urgent needs for food. The first round of donations supported the Genesis Center in Buffalo, a program of St. Simon’s, Buffalo, and a “circle of compassion” organized by the Cathedral of St. Paul and St. Mark’s Church in Erie whose activities include working with local businesses to deliver cookies to a soup kitchen, sandwiches to an elementary school, and cupcakes to retirement communities and to Lord Corporation, whose workers are making pieces for masks and ventilators. Last week, the congregations partnered with Make It Fabulous Catering, a regular vendor of the diocese, to deliver 400 boxed lunches to health care staff at the Erie VA Medical Center.

Contributions to the Easter appeal will be accepted through May 31, Pentecost Sunday. Future rounds of funding will support other feeding programs across the partnership dioceses.

In addition, the cathedral and St. Mark’s have contributed $10,000 to an initiative, led by Red Letter Hospitality, that is providing meals to health care workers in Erie at St. Vincent Hospital, UPMC Hamot, and Millcreek Community Hospital during the pandemic.

“Together our dioceses are responding to urgent needs across our region,” said Bishop Sean Rowe. “We are loving our neighbor by both observing sound social distancing practices and seizing the opportunities we have identified to be of help. I am grateful to everyone involved in these ministries.”

The Rev. Luke Fodor and the people of St. Luke’s in Jamestown, New York, seized an opportunity to help, but when the opportunity changed shape, they didn’t let go.

The parish was set to become the new host of Mobile Market, a project of the Jamestown Public Market through which low-income shoppers can buy fresh produce from local farms at subsidized prices. When the pandemic hit, however, those plans were canceled. Instead, Fodor joined with the leaders of other local religious and nonprofit organizations to begin coordinating the existing food distribution networks in Chautauqua County and advocating for systems that deliver better food to more needy people in the area.

“We’ve got a food crisis line that people can call,” Fodor said. “We’ve got hale and hearty folks who don’t mind delivering food. Most of our work is not really in running a pantry but coordinating the various efforts and pantries that are out there.”

The leaders have also established a friendly fundraising competition between the faith communities to see who can raise the most money for food relief efforts. “We are calling it the Friendly Food Fund Fight, and it will run until May 3,” he said.

Fodor and the parish are also using the pandemic as part of their continuing effort to think more deeply about food-related issues. “There is more demand [for food assistance] than we would like to admit,” Fodor said. “I think there are people not being served who could be served. And the food that comes often isn’t good, nimble or sufficient, and then there are restrictions on distribution at each location, like just one time a month. We want to educate people and advocate for them.”

Few parishes are as well equipped to explore the ethical and theological aspects of the food system as St. Luke’s is. The staff includes Linnea Carlson, the director of the Jamestown Public Market, who also leads adult formation efforts related to food issues. Jessica Frederick, the minister for youth, children and families, was a farmer before entering the ordination process and often integrates agricultural themes into faith formation programs, including a new Rogation Sunday effort beginning in May. The parish sponsors a community-supported agriculture (CSA) initiative, 80% of whose stakeholders are members of the parish.

“Our whole liturgical life cycle is based on the agricultural cycle and the food cycle, but we don’t understand it,” Fodor said. “I want to live in a world where food comes to me locally, has the most nutritional value, and supports people in my community.”