JOHNSTOWN - As the region's economic stagnation drags on, with unemployment rates exceeding 10 percent in Fulton and Montgomery counties, many local families are struggling to put food on the table.
As the need has increased, local food pantry organizers have had to reach out for help keeping their shelves stocked.
"It's such a reward to help people," said Kathy Mickel, who runs the Johnstown Council of Churches Food Pantry with her husband, Tom, and other volunteers.
Tom and Kathy Mickel are shown Friday in the Johnstown Council of Churches’ Food Pantry, which is in the basement of St. John’s Episcopal Church on North Market Street. The food pantry has helped more than 140 families each month since it opened to walk-ins in April. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
Scarecrows watch over the garden at Park Terrace Elementary School in Gloversville on Thursday. Produce from the garden is offered to local families who get assistance from the school’s food pantry. (The Leader-Herald/Bill Ackerbauer)
The food pantry is based at St. John's Episcopal Church, which also hosts NOAH, the Needy or Alone and Hungry program, which serves free community meals on Sundays at noon.
Kathy Mickel said the food pantry's original mission was to support families newly signed up for assistance through the Department of Social Services, providing them about three days' worth of food while they wait for their applications for food stamps to be approved. Earlier this year, the organizers decided to expand the food pantry's services by opening it to the public from 9 a.m. to noon every Wednesday.
"We limited it to city of Johnstown residents, because this is the only food pantry in Johnstown," Mickel said.
For more information about the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York and to see lists of agencies it serves in local counties, see www.rfbneny.com.
For more details about the New York State Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (formerly the food stamps program), see http://otda.ny.gov/programs/snap.
For information about the Fulmont Community Action Agency's food pantries in Gloversville and Northville, call 725-7110 or 863-2177.
For information about the Gloversville Council of Churches Food Pantry, call 773-3302.
For a detailed list of Fulton County food pantries and other food assistance programs, see http://nyconnects.fcofa.org/directory/food/food.html.
Mohawk Harvest Cooperative Market will host its third annual Harvest Dinner on Sept. 29, with proceeds to benefit local food pantries. For more details, see www.mohawkharvest.org.
A Crop Walk to benefit food pantries will take place Sept. 30 in Johnstown. For more details, call 762-7924 or 725-6781.
She said about 100 families came to the pantry in April. Since then, the demand has increased, and more than 140 families are provided food every month, in addition to 40 or so households also getting food through DSS referral.
The Johnstown food pantry continues to serve people from throughout the county who are referred to it by Social Services, Mickel said, and the volunteers are always willing to help people in emergency situations.
Through the food pantry, Mickel said, she has met local people with heartbreaking stories of hardship. One older man who came to the food pantry told her he had almost died of starvation before someone brought him to a hospital and he started getting assistance.
Food provided through the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York is a bargain, according to Mickel, but since they started opening on Wednesdays, the Johnstown food pantry has spent between $1,200 and $1,400 per month to keep its shelves stocked.
"We're a little worried about it," Mickel said. "You have to put it in God's hands, though, and so far, he's been providing."
Regional Food Bank
Many food pantries in the area rely on the Latham-based Regional Food Bank, which sells grocery items in bulk to food pantries and soup kitchens at significant discounts. In some cases, it distributes quantities of food for free through a federal U.S. Department of Agriculture program.
"Thank goodness for the Regional Food Bank. That's been a godsend," said Stephen Pavone, principal of Park Terrace Elementary School in Gloversville, which hosts a food pantry for families in the Gloversville Enlarged School Districts. "If we continue to have support from the Regional Food Bank, we'll be okay. If the Regional Food Bank takes a hit, we're going to suffer."
Mark Quandt, executive director of the Regional Food Bank, said the need for food assistance increased with the economic downturn a few years ago. The amount of food supplied to the needy through the Regional Food Bank has increased 40 percent since 2008, Quandt said. He said the demand continues to be seen at homeless shelters and soup kitchens as well as food pantries.
"Since the bad economy hit us, more people have needed to go to food pantries," he said. "I haven't heard of many instances of a place experiencing a decline in demand."
Catholic Charities of Fulton and Montgomery Counties runs a food pantry at its Amsterdam location.
The agency's executive director, John Nasso, said requests for food increased about 10 percent or 15 percent in May, June and August from earlier in the year.
"Over the last several years, the demand certainly has gone up," he said.
But the demand is being met, Nasso said.
"Throughout the year, we get so much help from local churches, people send us checks ... There's a bigger demand, but I keep seeing the community respond."
Who needs help
Quandt said as food pantries are assisting more and more people, there is no longer such a thing as a "typical" needy person.
"The middle class is struggling more," he said. "With unemployment up, there are a lot of people [seeking help] who never, ever thought they might go to a food pantry - they might have donated to a food pantry previously."
At Park Terrace, Pavone said, people often come to the food pantry for the first time after a sudden financial crisis.
"We have people who say, 'I never thought I'd have to access a food pantry, but I just lost my job ...'" he said. "But that's what it's for - to help local families in need."
Overseen by Parent Coordinator Janice Blodgett, the Park Terrace food pantry is open Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and serves about 25 to 30 families each week.
The Broadalbin Ecumenical Food Pantry is open Mondays from 3:30 to 5 p.m. and Thursdays from 9:30 to 11 a.m. The pantry, based at the United Methodist Church in the village, serves only residents of the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District, and each household is allowed only one visit per month.
Joan Silvernail, one of the volunteer coordinators, said about 85 to 100 families take advantage of the food pantry, though the demand changes from season to season.
"You see a shift in what people take over the year," she said.
The summer can be tough for families with school-aged children, Quandt said. During the school year, children from needy families can get free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch.
"That's five or 10 meals a week that the school can provide," he said. "It really makes a difference."
Pavone agreed, noting the food pantry at Park Terrace has remained open through the summer.
"When your kid is fed breakfast and lunch at school, your food stamps are going to go farther," Pavone said. At Park Terrace, 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.
The Gloversville branch of the Boys & Girls Club served free breakfast and lunch to children all summer, with support from the Regional Food Bank. And the Boys & Girls Club has taken care of the school garden this summer, so the food pantry can offer some fresh produce along with the canned and dry goods on its shelves.
The need for help
The Johnstown Council of Churches' member congregations take turns running food drives among their own members, but "the churches can only do so much," Kathy Mickel said.
The Postal Service and the Boy Scouts conduct annual food drives, and volunteers from Lexington Center help distribute goods at St. John's on Wednesday mornings.
The Johnstown food pantry tends to get more donations at Christmas time, Mickel said. A $1,000 annual grant from the Reformed Church of America helps, but the Council of Churches plans to seek additional grant funding to help meet the growing need. Individuals can help by sending checks payable to the Johnstown Council of Churches Food Pantry in care of St. John's Episcopal Church, 1 North Market St., Johnstown, NY 12095.
Mickel said the Johnstown pantry also will conduct a special food drive this month. People are asked to drop off non-perishable food items at the following city locations:?Main Chrysler-Dodge Jeep, Brown's Ford, Herba Nissan, Steet Toyota, Eagle Chevrolet and NBT?Bank.
Anyone willing to volunteer with the Johnstown food pantry can call the Mickels at 762-9210.
Silvernail said the Broadalbin Ecumenical Food Pantry gets support from NBT Bank, the Knights of Columbus, the Catholic Daughters, Java Junction, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion, the Boy Scouts and the Lions Club.
"It's not just the churches, and it's not just a few people - it's really the whole community," she said.
Bill Ackerbauer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.