By Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian
Summer can prove a challenging time for food pantries; as temperatures rise, donations to food banks go down.
Without the aid of school-sponsored food drives or holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving, donations typically decline.
But the 60 volunteers at the food pantry at Prince of Peace, Chesapeake, are ready to weather a wave of challenges.
“We have been very fortunate in that we always seem to have enough,” said volunteer Mary Fallon. “God always comes through for us.”
Each week, a rotating team of volunteers juggles a variety of everyday and unexpected tasks: organizing canned goods, unpacking produce brought in by local farmers, handling surprise contributions from visiting Marines and overloaded truckers, and even maneuvering a food cart through a hallway turned into a shadowy cave for Vacation Bible School. They prepare extra touches —such as coffee for the adults and stuffed animals for the children —to make food pantry visitors feel welcome.
The seeds for the food pantry were planted in 2010, when Father Romeo Jazmin, pastor of Prince of Peace, was approached by a woman in the commons just moments before the Saturday vigil Mass.
“She said, ‘Father, do you have some food for me?’ I asked the woman to please wait for me, and when Mass was over I would find her something,” Father Jazmin said. “But when Mass was over, she had disappeared. And that has never left my heart.”
Father Jazmin held a meeting to gauge interest in creating a parish food pantry. While many came forward to volunteer, finding someone to organize the whole operation was a different matter.
“Who’s willing? I asked. ‘Nobody? Nobody?’ and then Nick Vacca came forward. I had a feeling that he would be a good one for the job.” Father Jazmin said, adding with a laugh, “I think his wife talked him into it.”
Mr. Vacca has chaired the committee ever since. In the past seven-and-a-half years, the food pantry has hosted more than 25,000 visits. Mr. Vacca attributes its success to generous donations from local grocery stores, businesses, churches and schools, and, above all, to the work of many devoted volunteers. “The Lord has blessed us with so many hard workers,” he said. “Some are parishioners, some are not, but everyone comes together to help.”
The pantry is open every Wednesday from 10 a.m. to noon. The team arrives early to clean tables and lay out food. In matching red shirts, they are a flurry of activity.
Last week as they worked, volunteers recounted how some of the food came to be donated. One parishioner had a surplus of cucumbers in his garden and brought them to the pantry. One volunteer’s daughter held a birthday party in which guests brought food for the pantry rather than gifts. And once, a trucker whose boss did not want a shipment of beans called the parish on a whim and asked to donate them.
“We never know what we are going to get. One week a farmer might bring corn, one week strawberries,” said Mrs. Fallon. “Once Aldi’s donated 50 gallons of milk.”
“Yes,” recalled volunteer Fiorella Sauerbier. “And we had exactly 50 people that week!”
Just as in the parable of the loaves and fishes there always seems to be just enough.
At 10 a.m., the doors opened to a long line of people waiting outside. Volunteers greeted them at the door. Due to large demand, most food pantries must limit their clientele to residents of certain zip codes. Clients go through a registration process to determine their residence and assess their need. Families with many children are allotted larger orders, which volunteers pack into bags. In addition, there is a long table laden with canned goods, bread and produce, from which visitors may choose what extras they wish.
“They are beautiful here,” said Angela, who has been coming to the food pantry for a few months. “Even if you are in a bad mood, they will find a way to cheer you up. Just the kindness makes such a difference.”
While they wait for their orders or peruse the table of extra goods, some clients stop to talk with volunteers. One woman updated a volunteer on troubles with recent surgeries; two others recounted having to leave their jobs to take care of loved ones ill at home.
Meanwhile, an elderly lady in a soft blue hat, reached out for a loaf of bread, then hesitated, asking a volunteer how much she could take.
“I don’t want to take too much,” she said.
“Please,” the volunteers chimed, encouraging her. “Go ahead.”
With the help and support of the parish, farmers and businesses in the greater community, food pantry volunteers have faith that more aid is on the way.
“I wanted the Food Pantry to be a way for the parish to live the Gospel in everyday life,” Father Jazmin said. “If you trust the Lord, you will find that there will always be enough.”