‘Beyond the groceries’

More than 400 local families rely on its services each month.

In a nondescript parish house adjacent to St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Cherry Hill, the food pantry aids area residents in need.

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The rooms are small. Volunteers stack, store, bag goods and register clients.

Twice a week, individuals and families travel from zip codes 08002, 08003, 08034 and 08054.

More than half of visitors live in Cherry Hill.

A whiteboard tells them when they are allowed to return, which is 28 days later due to the droves of people who come looking for nourishment and not enough supplies.

The Cherry Hill Food Pantry is only “a help” in the grand scheme, said Board Chair Shelley Wilks Geehr.

“It will not feed a family for a month,” Geehr said. “By no means is it enough.”

A student intern over the summer calculated through food donations that each family receives about $120 worth of groceries during each visit.

Many people regularly visit the pantry, while others come as a result of an unexpected life occurrence, she said.

An unexpected car repair or a medical bill can destroy a budget and those people might require a little help that month.

“It’s a very real need for assistance,” Geehr said.

The fastest-growing demographic in terms of visitors, she said, is grandparents who have taken in their grandchildren.

They may have been afloat before, but with extra mouths to feed, they just cannot make it through on their own.

Janet Giordano, pantry operations, is in high demand, organizing volunteers and answering questions from visitors.

Staples, she said, include cans of tuna fish, boxes of cereal, peanut butter and jelly, and pancake mix.

Selections change as donations are given, but each family receives four grocery bags.

The pantry purchases all eggs, and some products can be bought at a reduced cost from the South Jersey Food Bank and Philabundance.

ACME Markets donates overages and on one day in early October, Entenmann’s had donated boxes of cakes.

Aldi, Giordano said, is a strong supporter of the pantry.

“They’re so good to us,” she said.

The pantry, which began in 2006, is currently open twice a week, on Tuesdays from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. and Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Many assume that the winter months would be the busiest time of the year, but summertime receives the most activity.

During the summer, said Geehr, free or reduced price breakfast and lunch programs disappear.

“It’s very, very difficult for these families,” she said. “Suddenly you have 10 meals you have to cover.”

Since major food drives tend to occur in the fall, food banks have their lowest amount of supplies in the summer and volunteer numbers go down as people take vacations.

“It’s like a perfect storm,” she said.

As the holidays inch closer, families will come in to be able to save some money to buy loved ones presents.

Some shelves were recently bare at the pantry, Geehr said, as the South Jersey Food Bank has been short supplied lately, which provides for less food to purchase from the food bank.

State and federal food funding has been depleting as well.

The pantry is beginning to dip into its reserves.

This month, it received 142 chickens, which is less than half of the number they need.

“We’re going to have to buy chickens to supplement,” she said.

“This is real hunger. This is 300 children a month depending on us,” she added.

“It’s our neighbors.”

Twelve area churches and synagogues are full members of the pantry, while many others support the pantry as well.

“I would love, love, love to have more,” said Geehr.

Christ Our Light recently held an emergency collection on top of their quarterly collections.

“They were very generous,” she said.

More businesses are contributing, and Mayor Chuck Cahn has recently visited them. Agency Point has also stepped up and is being “extremely generous,” Geehr said.

The pantry has ambitions, she said.

As the Cherry Hill Food and Outreach Council, members care about more than just feeding hungry stomachs.

At St. Michael’s, a group of volunteers operates a hospitality center, providing a small snack and chatter with those in need.

Visitors are able to go into the sanctuary to pray or have a quiet moment.

“When you’re in there, you can’t tell the volunteers from the clients,” she said. “You just don’t know.”

A team of nurses in the center conducts sugar checks and blood pressure tests to clients.

“We’ve saved people’s lives,” Geehr said.

Some longtime regulars, she said, have needs that go “beyond the groceries.”

There are several ways to help, from volunteering time to donating on the pantry’s website.

The more people who can contribute, more neighbors in need will receive help, she said.

“People think about (hunger) in the fall. They think about it during the holidays,” Geehr said. “We’re going to need that.”

Go online

To learn more about the Cherry Hill Food Pantry, visit cherryhillfoodpantry.org.

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