SHIRLEY – Loaves and Fishes Executive Director Patricia Stern and Board member Jim Breslauer met with the Board of Selectmen Monday night seeking the board’s assistance in getting the word out about “who we are,” and what the Devens-based food pantry is all about.
It’s a simple, straightforward mission: “To provide nutritious food in an atmosphere of kindness and respect…” for people in need who live within the non-profit organization’s 7-community service area.
That is, Ayer, Devens, Groton, Harvard, Littleton, Shirley and Dunstable.
The hard part is getting the word out that the food pantry is available to everyone in any of those communities who needs it. Located at 243 Barnum Road, Devens, the phone number is 978-772-4627.
“We’re different…people can shop, choose their own food,” from the shelves, similar to a grocery store, Breslauer said. And there are no income guidelines. Eligibility is based on residence only, he said.
Clients can come in twice a month and fill up a cart with groceries, Stern said, and it’s not just non-perishables such as canned goods and packaged foods. Choices include frozen meats, fresh produce, even milk vouchers to take to a local grocery store. Basically, it’s “everything they need,” she said.
Over the past year, Loaves and Fishes served 828 families, providing food for 1,965 individuals in need, per statistics she and Breslauer quoted. Of that number, 29 percent were children under 17, 10% over 65.
One statistic was startling: 30 percent of those who turned to the food pantry for help last year earned less than $10,00 a year, far below the poverty level Stern cited, which is $25,000 for a family of four.
In Shirley, “20 percent of residents fall below” that benchmark, she said. “We know there are more families in need out there.”
So who are the folks who shop at Loaves and Fishes? Some are homeless. But they are “just like us,” Stern said. Kids who sit next to your kids in school. Ordinary people you meet on the street. For one reason or many reasons, they need help, temporarily or long-term. Either way, Loaves and Fishes is there to help them.
“Food insecurity is right here,” she said.
One way to put it all in perspective is to tell the stories of folks whom they’ve served, Stern said. Breslauer shared two. Later, a selectman added one of her own.
Last October, on a raw day, Breslauer was working at the food pantry, where he has volunteered for the past four years, when he noticed a well-dressed man walking slowly up to the door. Hesitant at first, “he wouldn’t make eye contact,” Breslauer said. Then, quietly, the man said: “I need some food.”
The man’s name was Tom, about 45 years old, widowed, with two teenage kids. A skilled printer, he’d recently lost his job and was having trouble finding another one. He’d used up his savings. He was embarrassed to say it, but he did. “My kids need food” he said.
The story has a happy ending. Tom left that day “with a grocery cart full of food and a smile,” Breslauer said.
Tom came in about twice a month for the next several months. Then one day he said it would be his last visit; he’d found a job. A long commute but he was happy. “You won’t see me again,” Tom said.
Then there was Donna, age 92 and legally blind. She and her husband were getting by on Social Security when one of their adult children, diagnosed with cancer, moved in with them. Their daughter, escaping a domestic violence situation, came back, too, with her two kids. The couple needed help putting food on the extended family table. Loaves and Fishes provided it.
The newest board member, Andre Jean Jacques said she’d visited Loaves and Fishes herself, to shop. For herself and her two daughters when she arrived “as an immigrant,” and recently, for her mother. “Yes, I used it and still can, if I need to.”
Jean Jacques and her family looked for meat and fresh vegetables, she said, stables in her native country of Haiti. “It’s not just canned food…and it’s private. Nobody outside the pantry needs to know.”
Selectman Debra Flagg wanted to know if the call out was for food donations, money or volunteers. Loaves and Fishes welcomes volunteers as well as monetary and food donations and it needs all three, Stern answered. “There’s always a way to help.”
“We provide food, hope” and more, Stern said, including client counselors for referrals and information on area resources. She added that people can go to the website – www.loavesfishespantry.org — to find out what’s needed at their end.