ELYRIA — Today, the St. Jude’s Helping Hands Food Pantry, a former convent turned into a source of nourishment for families, will be open.
The posted hours are 6 to 8 p.m., but Darlene Lauffer, president of the all-volunteer group that now numbers more than 50, knows from experience that people will start to darken the organization’s doorstep much sooner.
“It’s a school day, so people know they can’t start lining up until after 4 p.m., but trust me, they will be out there as soon as they can because everyone knows the first people who come will get the best stuff,” she said. “When we were open this past Saturday, the first person was in line at 1 a.m. Imagine waiting outside someplace for hours just to get some food because you know without it your family won’t eat. Those are the people I see.”
As the holidays near and planned reductions to the federal food stamp program are slated to take effect next month, Lauffer and those who run the county’s local food pantries know the burden to fill the gap will fall to them.
Monday afternoon, Lauffer surveyed the many shelves and refrigerators that make up the pantry.
She ran her hand over the eight loaves of bread on one shelf and made a mental note to check with the treasurer to see if more can be purchased before today.
“We’re going to see maybe 125 to 150 families,” she said. “This is definitely not enough bread.”
In another room, there are dozens of cans of tomato sauce — not spaghetti sauce that can actually be made into a meal with a box of pasta — but the kind of tomato sauce someone would use as a base for chili. There are more cans then Lauffer can count.
No orange juice. No eggs.
Another shelf has multiple boxes of Hamburger Helper boxed dinners, but no ground hamburger.
There’s bologna and frozen chicken nuggets.
“You think this is enough. You walk around and you say there will be enough, then 150 people walk in the door and when they leave you are left with nothing and have to start over from scratch,” Lauffer said.
The cycle of food items coming in the back door and going out the front door to the homes of needy families has been near nonstop since the pantry moved there almost five years ago. In the beginning, roughly 60 families were being fed.
Now, the number of families is nearly three times that, and it continues to grow.
“We are doing as much as we can,” Lauffer said. “Every food pantry is doing as much as it can. The problem is, even with all of us doing as much as we can, it’s still not enough.”
Some families are beginning to feel the hurt now, said Roxanne Jones Lewis, director of the Asbury United Methodist Church food pantry.
“The phone calls have already started coming in from able-bodied adults with no children who have said they are getting less benefits,” she said. “We are getting calls from longtime customers whose adult children have had to move back home and need a little bit more for their household.”
In existence for six years, the faith-based program has been blessed with abundance.
“By the grace of God, we have never run out of money and we have never had to turn anyone away,” Lewis said. “We think of it like the Bible story about the fish and the loaves. The more we give away, the more we have to give.”
But there are always limitations. Meat is sometimes scarce at the food pantry.
Lewis said that may be the case more often in the future as more families will likely experience food shortages once their benefits are cut by $36 — the amount a family of four could lose under revamped Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program protocols.
The federal program, aka SNAP, is scheduled to scale back benefits for its recipients Nov. 1 as a boost that was aimed to get families through the recession is set to expire. In Ohio, the move could affect hundreds of thousands of people, many of them Lorain County residents.
Ben Johnson, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, has said SNAP is one of few entitlement programs available to able-bodied persons without children, but assistance is limited to roughly $130 on average per person per month. Some 1.8 million Ohioans receive food assistance, and none make more than 130 percent of the federal poverty guideline, which is $23,550 for a family of four.
“There are more people out of work and more people here all the time,” Lauffer said. “Maybe someone lost their job a year ago and they have been able to get by on savings, but the savings is now gone. Frequently, I will hear stories about a husband losing his job and then a few weeks later the wife will lose her job, and they have no income coming in. It’s much worse out there than people realize.”
Small changes are already taking place at Helping Hands to help ease the burden that will be felt by the holiday surge hitting at the same time of the federal cuts. The amount of food available to each family is limited, and fundraising has taken on a life of its own.
Julie Chase-Morefield, executive director of the Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio, said the worry among local food pantries is real.
“The people who make these decisions don’t realize how much $36 is to some families,” she said.
“They are already doing their best to stretch what they have and now we are going to have to tell them to stretch even more,” she said.
Want to help?
- Start with the Second Harvest Food Bank of North Central Ohio. They distribute food to 49 food pantries in the county and can point you to the closest one. They can be reached at (440)960-2265.
- To reach the food pantries featured in this story, call the St. Jude Helping Hands Food Pantry at (440)366-5711 or the Asbury United Methodist Church at (440)323-9596.