WOONSOCKET - Walk, for a moment, in their shoes. They are the chronically unemployed and the new, almost invisible subclass of under-employed workers.
They are the disabled, whether by old age, circumstance, or substance abuse. They are the homeless, living in tents in a once vibrant and ethnically proud city. They walk, sometimes for miles, every Thursday morning to Bryan’s Food Pantry located in the basement of St. Charles Borromeo Church where the light of God’s love shines from the faces of Jesuit Father Gerald Finnegan and St. Vincent de Paul Society members such as Rachel Kennedy.
Supported by annual parish collections, donations from schools, and small grants from private companies, Bryan’s Food Pantry also received a $2,000 grant from the Diocesan Emergency Assistance Grant program last year.
“Here we are in the United States and you have to line up and take a ticket (to receive food),” Kennedy lamented. The retired school administrative assistant nodded toward a shopper wearing summer sandals on a sub-freezing, late winter day.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she sighed.
Bryan’s Food Pantry was named in honor of former, long time St. Charles Borromeo Church pastor Father Bryan Finnerty, who started the food pantry more than a decade ago. All of the pantry’s two-dozen volunteers are over 70.
One member, affectionately known as “the bouncer,” is 87 year-old Pauline Colerick. Her job is to welcome shoppers, five at a time, into the pantry from waiting areas located in the hallway and in an adjoining room where elderly and physically challenged shoppers can sit as they wait for their numbers to be called. Numbered tickets are given out for shoppers’ comfort and convenience so that they do not have to stand in line outdoors in often inclement weather.
Andree Fanning, who tirelessly raises funds for the food pantry, explained that on an average Thursday morning, Bryan’s Food Pantry serves more than 100 people. The volume of those seeking help can expand to as many as 150 weekly shoppers as the month progresses and money from unemployment insurance, Social Security, or public assistance is depleted.
In 2008, the food pantry, with its 800 registered shoppers, distributed 175,000 pounds of food having a retail value of $235,000, said Fanning.
Lisa and Bill have been coming to Bryan’s Food Pantry on and off for years. They have two children, one disabled by autism and heart defects. Bill, an auto mechanic, cited the decline in the number of oil changes and maintenance repairs he used to do.
“We needed a little bit of help before. Now we need a lot of help,” he emphasized. “It’s hard to say if things will pick up this summer.”
Stephanie, by contrast, is a new food pantry shopper. She has also witnessed the trickledown effects of a badly deteriorating economy. Until a few weeks ago, Stephanie had two jobs, one as a CNA and another as a dental assistant.
“When I go back to work, I won’t have to come here,” she said almost apologetically, adding that as a high school student, she was on the giving end, and often volunteered at a food pantry in her hometown of Burrillville.
Food Coordinator Debbie Monteiro noticed another trend. “We’ve seen an increase in men (coming to the food pantry) – homeless men, men from shelters, and single men,” she noted. Responding to this particular shift in food pantry demographics, Monteiro tries to order easy-to prepare foods from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, which delivers pallets of food to Bryan’s Food Pantry every Wednesday. Members of the St. Vincent de Paul Society haul the cases into the pantry storage area and then stock the shelves with the week’s offerings.
Bryan’s Food Pantry uses a Client’s Choice system, explained Fanning, who added that shoppers typically take home at least 30 pounds of food each week. More important than quantity, though, Client’s Choice allows people to select the food they want, rather than receive a prepackaged bag of groceries that they might not use. “I always make sure I have mac and cheese,” laughed Monteiro.
The Rhode Island Community Food Bank posts a daily food list online, Monteiro explained. “I choose what I want and call it in. Street people aren’t going to want the pork patties or coffee because they have no way to cook it. But we have packets of tuna which can fit easily in backpacks,” she said.
Food pantries, such as Bryan’s, that belong to the Rhode Island Community Food Bank network, receive food free but pay a small, shared maintenance cost of just 10-cents per pound—a reminder, ironically, that the Depression Era song, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” is as timely now as then.