By Joseph Ryan
Advent, a time of spiritual renewal in preparation for Christmas, always arrives at a time of plenty in the United States.
The Thanksgiving feast, the Black Friday sales and the monthlong consumer frenzy of shopping highlight abundance in society but hide the year-round needs of the poor.
Those needs this year are greater than ever, according to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Wilmington.
“The stagnant economy continues to push low-income households to the brink,” Richelle Vible, Catholic Charities’ executive director, said last week. “Membership in our food cooperatives continues to climb, and requests for our emergency food distributions are at an all-time high.”
Catholic Charities is expanding its Stock the Pantry efforts at its three locations for the more than 1,700 families enrolled in its food cooperatives.
Food programs across the diocese reflect Catholic Charities’ report, citing the weak economy and high unemployment that increase the number of people seeking help from Saint Martin’s Barn in Ridgely, Md., to Christ Our King in Wilmington’s food closet, to the Joseph House Ministries in Salisbury, Md.
“Right now is honestly the busiest time of the year” for food distribution at Saint Martin’s Ministries, said Jean Austin, chief operations officer. Last year about 240 families received emergency food each month. This year Saint Martin’s is averaging about 280 families a month and recently distributed 294 food packages in a month’s time.
The need “seems to increase every October,” Austin said, “because we’re on the shore, there’s a lot of employment through the summer but when children go back to school families have additional expenses. So as part of our food pantry operations, we give out school supplies.”
“We are the feeding ministry for Caroline County,” said Sister Patricia Gamgort, executive director of Saint Martin’s. The food distributed comes from the Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAB), administered by the state of Maryland from a federal grant, also from donors such as schools, parishes, food stores and some that’s purchased by Saint Martin’s.
“The new people that we are seeing are people who are unemployed,” Austin said. “A lady last week had never been here before. She said, ‘I don’t think I’ll have to come back here.’ I said, ‘You can come back once a month.’”
“At least, if you come here for your food,” Sister Patricia said, “you can use the other money to pay bills. We understand people need help for a short period of time, as long as they need that help, we’ll come through for them.”
There are two baskets in the vestibule of Christ Our King Church in Wilmington that parishioners can stock with canned goods all year to help supply the Kevin Sullivan Food Closet run by the parish. Debbie Mosch started helping with the food ministry about six years ago and is now coordinator of the closet that is open on Thursdays from 10 a.m. until noon to provide food to those in need. Last week, the parish distributed food boxes for Thanksgiving meals on Tuesday.
“We’ve seen a significant increase over the past year,” Mosch said. “The maximum we can serve any Thursday is about 30 people. Before, if we got 15 people, it was a good day. Now, there are almost 30. A lot of the clients that we serve are elderly or disabled. A lot of the new clients we’ve seen come in are economic cases. They’ve lost a job; they can’t find work; they’re coming in for the first time.”
Clients of Christ Our King’s community-based food closet must live in the 19802 zip code, Mosch said. The parish received a grant from the state for $1,000 to buy its stock from the Food Bank of Delaware. In addition to provisions provided by parishioners, Mosch said St. Ann’s School in Wilmington conducts drives for the closet, as well as St. Joseph on the Brandywine Parish and the Knights of Columbus at St. Mary Magdalen Parish.
People can only come once a month; they’re logged in to keep track.
Typically, clients will receive cereal, canned potatoes or a bag of rice, cans of vegetables, tuna, pasta, pasta sauce, soup, and macaroni and cheese.
Mosch said when people visit the food closet for the first time, “We tell them we’re glad they came. We try to make it as pleasant as possible.”
There’s both a soup kitchen and a food pantry serving people in need at Joseph House Ministries, run by the Little Sisters of Jesus and Mary in Salisbury, Md.
Dave Heininger, who’s worked there for 14 years, said the soup kitchen has been averaging 170 to 200 people a day lately.
“The numbers are up, I figure, 10 to 11 percent over the previous year,” he said. “We get a lot of single mothers coming in with children who are living on welfare, unemployed. Unemployment is bad down here on the Eastern Shore. We draw people not just from the local area but all along the Eastern Shore.”
On the food pantry side of Joseph House’s operations, “we probably average 25 new families every week,” Heininger said. “We do give out government food. It’s a big part of our operation; the rest comes from donations. The donations we do get, especially this time of year, help a lot.”
Area donors also help. In addition to St. Francis de Sales parishioners’ support, Salisbury University students recently donated 12,000 pounds of groceries and area volunteers also conducted a food drive before Thanksgiving that filled a truck.
“This is a time of year when people are very generous,” Heininger said. “We try to spread it out to make things last.”