Inside a Local Food Pantry

Photo Credit - NewsTarget.com; Edited by Olivia Mistretta

Photo Credit - NewsTarget.com; Edited by Olivia Mistretta

Olivia Mistretta, Staff Editor

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It is 8:30am, the start of what will be an all-morning process. A few volunteers are already inside, checking the shelves, putting more bags together if needed, and any donations they brought with them are being placed in the respective places. By 9 AM, a small group of parishioners and other volunteers have formed and the bag-making process is in full swing. Each paper bag gets a box of cereal, cans of vegetables, soup, or fruit if it’s available, a snack (usually crackers or cookies), pasta, rice or potatoes, sauce, a can of tuna, tea bags, a box of mac and cheese, and bread, if in stock. Should there be desserts or other bonus items amongst the donations, they are added into the mix as well. By 10 AM, the visitors have already lined up by the door and volunteers begin to distribute the bags of groceries to them. These groceries are something people rely on every week.

 

The events just described are part of a normal Saturday morning at the Queen of Peace Food Pantry. Mrs. Marianne Sokolnicki-Mackey is the pantry coordinator, and there are many volunteers who come weekly to give their time to the cause. Most are members of the church. I come every couple of weeks to volunteer, and I was fortunate enough to interview Marianne about North Arlington’s only food pantry, which started up around 1992. She has been the coordinator from the beginning.

 

How does the distribution of food work? Marianne described the process in detail, “I would say it starts with donations over the weekends after the masses. The parishioners will bring food every single Saturday and Sunday after mass. There are bins in the back of the church. Our second source would be community groups. With any food that comes in over the weekend, different members of the pantry will empty the food out of the bin and sort it out to make sure the expiration dates are okay.” When it comes to large contributions, the rectory or Marianne herself are contacted and arrangements are made to bring in the food.

 

Since North Arlington is such a small town, the Queen of Peace food pantry can only provide for residents of the town and parishioners of the church, but according to Marianne, “We have at the present time about 53 [families] signed up.” I was told that bags of groceries given out are only supposed to be supplementary, so the number of bags varies depending on how many people are being provided for in each household. When there are extra items, they are distributed to the people who need them most. It is also important to keep in mind that the food pantry can only store non-perishables, “We don’t have the facilities for [fresh meat, eggs, things like that.] Stop N Shop gives us leftover cakes, rolls, and bread. They’ve been doing that for about 15 or 20 years or so; I go once a week to go get those.”

 

So where does the best help come from? “Well I would say probably…food items or gift cards. They don’t have to be expensive, [even] five or ten dollar gift cards. A lot of time is spent shopping for food items, we go and look for the least expensive brands, [and] we constantly peruse the papers so we can get more for our money with coupons,” Marianne told me. Essentially, gift cards, especially to Shop-Rite and Aldi, are very helpful when it comes to buying items the pantry needs, as well as the fresh chickens, turkeys, and hams given out and delivered around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. Around the holidays, special bags are given out with gravy, cranberry sauce, pie fillings, and other items to go with the fresh meat.

What items are most needed but aren’t often donated? “Canned fruit. That’s the big one, because it’s usually expensive”, Marianne replied.

Perhaps most essential in terms of understanding food pantry operations, the people the pantry serves are all in very different situations, “They’re people who could have just lost a job, maybe through sickness. They might not be able to get income. Not everyone gets an unemployment check or disability check right away. For those people I try to give extra food so they don’t have to spend their check on food, they can spend it on their medicine and stuff like that. If we have a lot of gift cards left over, I might give one to the person so they can go out and buy their meat.” A huge stereotype about people who rely on food pantries is that they are all destitute or homeless, but this isn’t always the case. Many people who rely on food pantries, especially smaller, community-based ones, could just be people struggling because of medical bills, accidents, or other tragedies.

According to Marianne there are many groups in town who help organize drives and give donations throughout the year, including: The Boy Scouts & Girl Scouts, the different schools of North Arlington, the Knights of Columbus, the North Arlington fire department, the Junior Women’s Clubs, various seniors clubs, and local businesses all contribute. Churches of all faiths in town have contributed to the food pantry as well.

Ultimately, Marianne wants the pantry to be, “A place where people can come for comfort and not only for their food, but to have a friendly place for them to confide in. A lot of people are very, very lonely, and you get to know their stories. It’s more than just…giving out food. There’s a face and a story for everyone.”

Thanks to Marianne and the incredibly dedicated food pantry volunteers, a positive difference is made in North Arlington every Saturday morning; not just in bags of groceries, but with giving  hearts.

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