Freda R. Savannah
Up to three times a day, every day, volunteers at the Episcopal Church of St. Paul in the Doylestown neighborhood fill their church’s small food pantry. The story is much the same at the Salem United Church of Christ mini-pantry on the other side of town.
Throughout the largely affluent community and surrounding areas, food insecurity is on the rise, church leaders and others in social services said.
“The need is great, obviously,” said Mary Lou Parry, chairwoman of the St. Paul Outreach Committee. “We’re having a hard time dealing with it,” she said of the search in the small closet. “No matter how much you put in, it’s gone.”
While some might think the food is used by the homeless, Parry said that’s not the case. “The truly homeless cannot use the soups, pasta, macaroni and cheese, as they usually have no means to heat them and no place to eat them. This is the unsafe food.
The United States Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity “as the lack of consistent access to enough food for each person in the household to lead an active, healthy life. This may be a temporary situation for the family or it may last for a long time. Food insecurity is one way of measuring how many people cannot afford food.
More than 44 million people, including 13 million children, were food insecure in the United States in 2022, up from 33.8 million the previous year, according to the USDA. The number of children in food-insecure households has increased by nearly 45% since 2021.
With the mission “Get what you need; give what you can,” the Little Food Pantry movement began in 2016 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. The entirely grassroots, neighbor-run initiative now has thousands of pantries across the country.
About a month ago, Salem United Church of Christ set up a food pantry near the front of the building on East Court Street.
“We fill it up every morning and by the next morning all the food is gone,” said Beth Mann, chairwoman of the church’s social action network. “Food insecurity in Doylestown is definitely a real thing.”
There’s usually everything from rice bowls and pop-top soups (nothing that doesn’t require a can opener) to macaroni and cheese and pasta.
“Single-serve cereal and packaged milk are very popular,” Mann noted.
Other hunger relief efforts in the area include monthly community meals served in St. Paul from April through November. In October, Parry said, 20 people came for a hot dinner. “It was the most we’ve ever had.”
Throughout the winter, Code Blue meals are provided to those in need by the Homeless Shelter and Support Coalition, which partners with local churches to provide the dinners. CSSH also provides free community meals on the first Sunday of the month where hundreds have found food.
Doylestown FISH, a Christian outreach ministry that, among other services, provides food vouchers to needy families has also seen a jump, said Marian Harris, its coordinator.
“With the economy the way it is, we’re seeing more people looking for food assistance,” Harris said. Last year, the agency served 242 people. He has helped 167 so far this year.
“We expect to surpass 2022,” Harris said, “because there are more requests during the holidays.”
FISH has decided to increase its weekly family voucher from $20 to $50, Harris said.
“We found that we had to seriously help people,” and $20 was no longer enough. The money can be used for food, rent or to offset an electric bill,” Harris said. “A lot of people have to choose between these things and medicine.”
At Bucks County Housing Group’s Doylestown food pantry, Stephen Keller said, “It’s certainly not going down,” when asked if his agency is seeing an increase in the need for food.
The Pantry visits an average of 100 families each week. They get two bags of non-perishables, one bag of meats and one bag of fresh produce and vegetables, Keller said, adding that it’s a “supplement” to the family’s needs. A larger household may sometimes receive additional food. Each family can return three times a week, Keller said.
Those who work most closely with the underserved and see firsthand their hardships remind others that food insecurity takes a dramatic toll on individuals and families.
It’s more than just being hungry, say experts from the USDA and other agencies and organizations that study the issue. It can affect every aspect of life.
From causing serious health problems when one has to choose between food and medicine or seeing a doctor, to affecting children’s ability to learn and grow, to the ongoing stress of deciding whether to eat or pay rent, the impact of food insecurity is complicated and far-reaching.
“There is a need to share your reward. You might be surprised who needs it, it might be your neighbor. If you can help, please do,” Parry said.