For I was hungry…

Nov. 20-26, 2003
For I was hungry…
By Eileen Jevis/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
Winter and holidays bring increased demands at Syracuse food pantries

Joan Campbell-Rosbrook, the director of St. Lucy’s food pantry, has helped serve the hungry from one end of the globe to another. Her work with those in need started at Covenant House in New York City –– a shelter for homeless teens. Rosbrook met her future husband at Covenant House and after they were married, they traveled to Guatemala together to work with the poor. Rosbrook said that she has seen the similarities in the clients she served both in Guatemala and in Syracuse. She sees it in the eyes of the children. “There is so much pain and loss in their eyes, but yet they have so much appreciation,” she said. “In Guatemala, the people live in tin houses with mud floors. If the family has enough food to eat and wood to stay warm for just that day, they think they’ve had a good day. Here, poverty is felt more deeply,” she said. “Our society is more complex than the simple life that Guatemalans live.”

Rosbrook finds her job very fulfilling. “I gain many more rewards doing this job than I could ever give back,” she said. “Many of the clients who are in need are embarrassed to come to the food pantry. They take just enough to get by and are very grateful. Others are angry and that’s understandable too,” said Rosbrook. “There is so much pain in their lives.”

The number of families St. Lucy’s pantry serves varies from month to month. It increases in the summer months when children are home from school, levels off in September and then rises again with the arrival of cold weather. In a four-day period in November, the pantry served almost 200 families. With Thanksgiving approaching, Rosbrook expects to far exceed the 500 families the pantry served last year. “We’ve been doing okay so far, but at holiday time, we get a little nervous,” she said. “Funds begin to run low.” Because the program, “Operation Giving Thanks,” which served between 900 to 1000 families last year, is no longer in existence, the burden will fall to local food pantries throughout the area. “Operation Giving Thanks” was a cooperative venture between Catholic Charities, the Interreligious Food Consortium, the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, and the Diocese of Syracuse that provided Thanksgiving food baskets to the hungry.

Paul Welch, the director of basic needs for Catholic Charities, explained the demise of the program. “The program was initially made possible through the generosity of one person who gave a very large monetary donation,” explained Welch. “We also had generous support from individuals, grocery chains, the Food Bank of Central New York and other organizations. Last year, the initial donor was no longer able to be as generous.” At that point, Welch and other committee members felt it was best to decentralize the program and send it back to the neighborhoods. “Neighborhood pantries were doing wonderful, remarkable work and many were already providing Thanksgiving baskets,” said Welch. “We thought it would best serve the needs of the hungry by supporting the individual pantries whose staff know the people and have a connection with them. They also know of their daily needs,” he said.

Welch also said that it made more sense to serve by geographic location. “It would be easier for families in need to go to their neighborhood food pantry instead of travelling downtown,” he said. “Operation Giving Thanks” also required having about $15,000 on hand to distribute among the needy in addition to the food. “That amount of money is not easy to come by,” said Welch. As a result, food pantries throughout the county continue to fill the needs of the hungry with the help and charity of schools, churches, and generous individuals. “We do receive some assistance from organizations,” said Rosbrook. “But it’s people like you and me that keep the pantries stocked. By dropping off food at their churches and schools and through fund-raising events, the pantries continue to meet the demands of the ever-growing population of hungry families.”

One organization Rosbrook was quick to recognize for its unlimited generosity was the United States Postal System, which sponsors a canned-food drive every December. “Those postal workers and employees work incredibly hard during this drive,” said Rosbrook. “They are a huge source of resources for us. I can’t begin to express our appreciation.” Rosbrook can’t help but wish the stereotypical image of the type of client that visits food pantries would change. “The people who utilize food pantries are of all nationalities, ages and backgrounds,” she said. “They are people who have lost jobs, are single-parent families, or disabled individuals.” Her point was well proven when someone knocked at the pantry door, even though it was closed for the day. Rosbrook apologized and immediately got up to greet the family in need.

A young woman and her 12-year-old son asked for permission to “shop” for food. St. Lucy’s is one of the few pantries that allows the clients to shop for their own food from the supplies on the shelves. “We have the staff and the resources to be able to do it,” said Rosbook. After asking the client for her social security number and address, Rosbrook quickly checked her database to make sure they had not already been served by another food pantry. The woman, an LPN, works two jobs. “I’ve been at one nursing home for nine years,” she said. “I just took a second job at night at another nursing home.” Her tall, handsome son followed behind her, smiling shyly. She told Rosbrook that she would like a turkey big enough to feed her family of six. Within minutes, the cart was filled and the woman and her son thanked Rosbrook profusely. “Hunger is 52 weeks a year,” said Welch. “People are very generous at holiday time. But our goal is to have people make a connection with the food pantry in their area, not just a connection with a holiday, so that they will help all year round.”

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