DEVENS — Moe than 500 people work at the Loaves & Fishes food pantry on Barnum Road, but only four are paid, and only two are full time.
Still, the pantry feeds and clothes needy families in the six communities they serve even with increasing numbers of clientele.
Last month, Loaves & Fishes recognized its massive core of volunteers during National Volunteer Week. Volunteer Manager Gail Wilson said the pantry tries to recognize that each and every week.
“Over the last year, our top 20 volunteers have given over 4,000 hours of work,” Wilson said.
“There are record numbers [of clientele] coming in, it is a combination of the economy, gas prices and other factors,” Wilson said. The wide range of volunteers include stay-at-home moms, retirees, church groups, students and even unemployed people. At the pantry, it seems the only thing more diverse than them is the workload.
“Donation pickups, providing resource information, clothes sorting, food unloading and all session work is done by them,” Wilson said.
Apart from the typical five-hour distribution sessions, about 11 each month, there are special events that happen throughout the year.
Last February the sprinklers broke and flooded much of the pantry building. Still, volunteers and clients alike were showing up for the Wednesday and Friday sessions that week. Loaves & Fishes adapted, and held a drive-thru operation.
“Some volunteers began directing traffic, and we set up check-in right in the parking lot,” said Brenda Ferg, a volunteer from Ayer. From there, clients drove around back where groceries were loaded into their cars.
Volunteers, like Ferg, maintain relationships with the clients through counseling and, usually, just casual conversation.
“It’s important to understand that everything is not peaches and roses,” said Ferg, who enjoys working in the clothing area.
She sorts through donated clothing and throws out things that are too worn and, during distributions, helps clients with sizing as they look through racks.
“We have quality stuff,” she said, laughing. “Sometimes you’d think they had gone to Macy’s.”
Though she likes working in clothing, Ferg, like most volunteers, is quick to take the first task that comes to her in the morning.
“I’m pretty much a floater,” said volunteer Aldea Choquette. “Wherever I am working it’s a great feeling to see clients getting food for their table that night.” Choquette said she volunteered last Thanksgiving and hasn’t been able to leave.
Another volunteer, Maria Allen, has been trying to come every week — for 15 years. “This is a safe haven for people,” she said. “I’ve seen pantries across the country and many don’t do things we do here.”
One feature is that clients are able to pick out their own food. They are led through with a steward which, according to Wilson, allows for better efficiency and nutritional choices.
Maria Allen referred to extra programs such as Shop for Kids and Shop for Parents, which the pantry offers around Christmas time. There, children and parents can pick out gifts and have them wrapped for the holidays. Allen also mentioned “schmoozing.”
“We [schmooze] a lot and, thus, we get food and supplies from places,” she said.
Allen says it is also important to coordinate with other organizations in the area such as the WHEAT Kitchen in Clinton, Transitions shelter in Devens or PACH in Pepperell.
“When we have overages we send them over to other places where people can use them,” Gail Wilson said.
Wilson says that gardens are very giving as well. Volunteer Glean Teams talk with local farmers and stock up on unwanted crops straight from fields yielding heaps of fresh produce like onions, apples and corn.
Out back there is even a special “Green Shelf” from which clients who bring their own reusable shopping bag may take an item.
Dotted throughout their shelves are bakery, produce and deli items, which have been “rescued.” Rescued items are those that have passed their sell-by date and are going to be thrown out by grocery stores. Volunteers swoop down on stores like Donelan’s, Walmart, Trader Joe’s and Roche Brothers with pickup trucks to rescue those items. According to Wilson, their next target for items is Target, where they got 4,000 pounds of goods last week.
All of it passes by Food Coordinator Paul Niemira. At a given session he can be seen sorting, storing and relaying in and out of the pantry’s 2 degree walk-in freezer.
“We’ve had a 53 percent increase in clientele since 2007 and in each of the last five months we are setting attendance records,” Niemira said. Loaves & Fishes has been seeing 60 to 65 families per session this year.
Despite increases, there is food for them. Niemira receives a steady stream of donations from area dropoff locations in places like churches, grocery stores and post offices plus boxes from the Boston Food Bank. Loaves & Fishes’ conference room is unusable for the time being as it is filled with boxes of nonperishable items.
Everything is stored according to expiration date and stocked on the shelves. Shelves are then labeled with limits people can take to keep the pantry supply steady.
This time of year is one of the toughest. Holidays are a much easier time for the pantry to maintain donations, but there are other factors that Wilson says people don’t think about.
“This time of year kids are coming back from school and need to be fed lunch at home, but a lot of our volunteers go on vacation,” Wilson said.
Wilson added that in a time like this the goal is to provide relief to get people back on their feet.
Despite the time of year, the pantry’s volunteers extend beyond its walls and into the communities of Ayer, Devens, Groton, Harvard, Littleton and Shirley. A total of 350,000 pounds of food was brought in last year, 75 percent of which was donated. Wilson says she is very fortunate to have such a supportive community.
The pantry always accepts donations at area drop boxes and at the pantry during distributions. They are always in need of basics such as canned goods, tuna, peanut butter, jelly, soups, pasta, tomato sauce and baking goods. Toiletries such as deodorant, shaving supplies and toothpaste are also needed.
Open pantry sessions take place weekly on Wednesdays and Fridays, and on first and second Saturdays and second Tuesdays of each month. Wilson holds volunteer orientation on the first and third Wednesdays of each month. Those interested in volunteering can call 978-772-4627, ext. 300, or email email@example.com.