Neighbors responding as demand surges at South Hadley food pantry

  • Volunteers work at a “Bag the Community” food drive at the high school for the Neighbors Helping Neighbors Food Pantry. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Thursday, August 08, 2019

SOUTH HADLEY — As the Neighbors Helping Neighbors Food Pantry experiences unprecedented demand, the South Hadley Town Hall will serve as a drop-off site for nonperishable donations for the remainder of the month.  

The pantry’s clientele has been increasing since spring, said Mary Lou Guarnera, the pantry’s operations manager. The pantry, which has been serving the community since 2011, is now picking up two to five new clients each time it opens, she said, and over the course of two months, the pantry gained 75 new clients.

Clientele figures became record-breaking in the last week of July, when the pantry served 52 families each of the two days it was open. This number is “huge” for the organization, which usually serves about 38 families each day it is open, according to Guarnera. On July 27, the pantry distributed about 2,700 pounds of food in two hours. 

Canned fruit, canned protein and cereal — particularly Cheerios — are all in high demand, Guarnera said, and the pantry is accepting new volunteers. The pantry also takes personal care products, household products, and cat and dog food donations.  

“We’ve been blessed that people have been bringing in more donations,” Guarnera said. “We’ve needed more staff, more time. It takes more people, more hours when you’re serving that much food to that many people.”

Guarnera said increasingly limited access to food stamps is a “huge reason” that the pantry has seen this increase, with some clients reporting that they are receiving only half of their former SNAP allocations.

“It’s scary when that happens,” Guarnera said. “Something comes in the mail from that government agency, and all of the sudden you know there’s a struggle coming.” 

Others face unemployment, she said, while some are just learning about the food pantry by word of mouth. 

Although the high demand can strain a small pantry such as Neighbors Helping Neighbors, Guarnera said new and returning clients should not be discouraged from stopping by for food. 

“Too many” clients wait until they’re entirely out of food before they come to the pantry, Guarnera said, which she associates with a stigma related to asking for help with food insecurity. 

“At our pantry, there isn’t any judgment,” Guarnera said, noting that many volunteers also rely on the pantry for food. 

“The clients get to know each other, and sometimes they help each other,” she added. “ Sometimes they might have a problem that someone else has a solution for …. It’s really a family atmosphere, so it’s really nothing to be afraid of.”

The food pantry has one paid position, but the rest of the team consists entirely of volunteers — about 50 whom are active, although some only work at certain events.

Around 55 to 60 percent of the pantry’s annual stocks come from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, according to Guarnera, with the rest sourced from donations and the town’s annual Bag the Community food drive. 

The Neighbors Helping Neighbors Food Pantry, at 30 Carew St. in the United Methodist Church, is open Wednesdays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m., then from 6 p.m to 7:30 p.m. On Saturdays, the pantry is open from 10 a.m. to noon. The organization also has a delivery service for those unable to access the pantry on their own.  

The pantry serves South Hadley and Granby, but will not turn away anyone in need. 

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.