DEVENS — Coming home is always a relief but for Loaves and Fishes it is a relief that extends beyond the home’s occupants.
For the 800 families who rely on the groceries and toiletries that the Devens-based food pantry offers, Loaves and Fishes’ return to the neighborhood is welcome news.
In front of a crowd of about 50 people Friday morning, Loaves and Fishes cut the ceremonial ribbon at the 234 Barnum Road establishment; officially re-opening for business.
The organization was absent from that building while a $120,000 renovation and reconfiguration took place, temporarily relocating to an elementary school in Shirley.
“We are grateful to the Lura White school for allowing us to operate from there while work was being done,” said Patty Stern, Executive Director of L&F. “And to the Ayer-Shirley Regional School District for their support during this time.”
For an organization that is used to being on the receiving end of praise and appreciation, it had much to dole out in the wake of the project’s completion, just seven weeks after it began. From a list of dozens of contributors and partners, Stern read aloud the details of each entity’s role in the recent project and in the 35 years of success preceding it.
Loaves and Fishes is a non-profit food pantry that allows struggling families from the area to get a fresh and healthy bounty of groceries without payment. Ayer, Devens, Groton, Harvard, Littleton and Shirley residents are all welcome to roam the aisles, requiring nothing more than proof of residency.
“The new configuration allows us to feed more people and for the process to be faster,” Stern said. “Before, we had everything all together and lots of walls. Now, we have individual areas for receiving and storage, which gives us more open floor space for the products.”
Included in the building’s upgrade are two brand new, glass-door coolers to store perishables — when before it had been a single old refrigerator — and a larger space for stowage of fresh meats and produce, which are donated by local farms.
“It’s not just a food pantry,” said State Sen. Jamie Eldridge, D-Acton. “It’s a multi-layered level of support for people in the community.”
Eldridge pushed his fellow lawmakers to include the project in this year’s state budget. The $120K was added into the recently passed budget and Eldridge was pleased by the end product.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said after a tour of the new facility. “And… wow.”
The money the state budgeted is to replace funding from the L&F coffers that was used on the renovation, Stern explained.
“We finished ahead of schedule and under budget,” she said.
Maugel Architects worked for free to design the space. The work was done by Fred Schultz of Versacon Construction and other praise was directed at officials from the Devens Enterprise Commission. Everyone that helped make it possible were awarded commemorative T-shirts, which Stern personally presented to each of the contributors.
The building was purchased in 2003 after Fort Devens surrendered a substantial tract of land to the surrounding communities.
“It was vacant for quite a while when L&F first entered into negotiations,” said Stern. “They ended up buying the building for one dollar and a can of peas. No lie.”
Now, it houses several cans of peas and has an annual budget of $500,000 in operating costs plus another $1 million or so in ancillary expenses. Stern said that 86 cents from every dollar goes directly into the program, among the highest rates of registered charities.
Loaves and Fishes moved into the building in 2006 following years of nomadic, short-term provisionalism in church basements, outgrowing each address as demand for services increased.
“Even well-to-do families can fall into hard times,” she said of the high-income communities within the umbrella. “Two-income households that suddenly lose one, or both, of those paychecks all of a sudden struggle to pay mortgage, college, car payments and things like that. We are here to give them a boost. Also seniors and disabled people who have a fixed income shouldn’t have to choose between eating and other expenses.”