Joseph Staniunas, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Unlike Jesus, the food pantry run by Blessed Sacrament Church in Harrisonburg has never fed 5,000 souls at one time. But as volunteers stood around a metal table, grabbed meat from a row of freezers and stuffed canned goods into grocery bags on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, it looked like they would have had no trouble doing it.

“It really helps me out a lot,” said an older woman named Mary, one of about 15 people in the waiting room. (She only wanted to go by her first name.) “I’d have to do without like I always did before. This way you don’t have to do without. You get flour and you get sugar and you get good milk and vegetables and a lot of good stuff.”

Barbara Warns, pantry coordinator, unloads some of the food that is donated to the pantry. (Photos/Joseph Staniunas)

That’s almost 60,000 pounds of “good stuff” a month to over a thousand families —10 million pounds of food, by the pantry’s calculation, since it began in 1980.

Open Tuesday through Friday, the charity benefits from its place near the dairy and poultry industries in the Shenandoah Valley. A local creamery supplies the fresh milk, some of it for free. Meat processor Cargill donates turkey. Canned goods flow in from chains like Kroger, Walmart and Martin’s. During the summer, local farmers bring fresh vegetables. The pantry is also part of the national food bank program, Feeding America.

Many of the clients are the ones working to feed America.

“You have a lot of farms and migrant workers, and the wages aren’t there to support their families so they need to come,” said pantry coordinator Barbara Warns. “We serve a fair amount of Hispanics who work on these farms, and the wives, too. And we have a lot of large families.”

The place those families come to is a one-story brick building that used to be a state probation office. The church bought it four years ago to move the pantry and youth ministries from rented space. Father Silvio Kaberia, pastor of Blessed Sacrament, said they looked at other sites that had better parking, but it was important to keep the pantry close to the people who need it the most.

“We need our presence among the poor, in the city, because the church is surrounded by the poor,” Father Kaberia said. “And that’s what the pope is teaching — that the Church should go out to the poor, so we are trying to live that.”

Blessed Sacrament’s operation is separate from a similar one in Harrisonburg formed by several congregations — the Patchwork Pantry. An ecumenical outfit, it’s open one day a week and also gives clients a three to four-day supply of food. The two groups cooperate. For example, if the Patchwork Pantry has an excess of meat, they’ll offer it to Blessed Sacrament. But Warns and Father Kaberia say they prefer to keep their pantry independent so it can make its own rules and be a sign of Catholic social justice.

“We feel that if a family comes to use and asks for food they need it and we give it to them,” Warns said.

“When you get new people in, sometimes they’re very embarrassed to have to come or they’re trying to explain themselves and I think they’re the most touching ones,” said volunteer Kathy Garland. “You just try to make them feel comfortable. They’re also the most appreciative. They really show their gratitude. Most often it’s the men and you just have to say, ‘Hey, everybody has a bad time and needs some help now and then and when you’re done needing us you can turn around and help us.’ You can try to build them up that way.”

Garland is one of about 65 unpaid staffers who put in an average of 1,200 hours a month.

“In my next life, I’m coming back as a bagger,” she said with a grin.

In this life, she works every Tuesday and every other Wednesday bagging, or working the “pick two” shelves at the front, in which clients get to choose from a variety of miscellaneous items.

As the morning goes on, more clients come to take a seat in the waiting room, talk to the pantry workers doing the screening, collect their supplies and head home.

Jim is heading back to Broadway, a town about 15 miles north of Harrisonburg. He stashed about half a dozen grocery bags in his mid-‘90s sedan and said the monthly trip to the pantry is important to someone like him, as he lives on disability and Social Security.

“Once a month is better than not at all,” he said. “I don’t abuse it. It’s a lot of help to us. I bring a couple of neighbors from Broadway and that’s how they survive, too — what they get here.”

“Feeding the hungry and the poor. That’s what the Lord wants us to do,” Garland said.