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Food pantry in Lansdowne fulfilling for volunteers and those in need

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It all started in a hall closet six years ago. Members of St. Clement Catholic Church would fill a small coat closet with individual grocery bags containing food staples to be distributed twice a week at their food pantry. Extra boxes and cans of food were neatly arranged on shelves in a storage area.

That system didn't last too long.

Besides not having the benefit of selecting their own staples, people didn't enjoy having a door close in their face after being handed a bag of food, according to Tim Walsh, operations manager of the pantry at the Lansdowne church.

"People didn't respond well to that," Walsh said. "We made the decision to change the model."

Now, people enter the building after being greeted at the door. In one room, they show their identification and are able to select a variety of breakfast foods, main dish items and bread. In another, they choose staples like rice and canned goods.

"We try to give a variety, not the same old, same old," said Jane Soaper, a volunteer at the pantry."We like to rotate with different things."

Food is still delivered to the pantry in bulk — about 250,000 pounds a year — from the Maryland Food Bank in Halethorpe.

But it is now stored in a room accessed from the outside. It is not unpacked until food pantry days.

On Farmers Market days, which occur once a month, 10,000 pounds of food is dropped at Lansdowne Elementary School on Alma Road to be distributed to 130-200 families in two hours.

"We don't need storage for that," Walsh said. "They drop it and it is gone."

The pantry purchases the food from the Maryland Food Bank. While there is plenty of hot cereal, cold cereal is a luxury as is rice, which the pantry has plenty of right now.

"We don't often get it," said Walsh, pointing to the 2,000 pounds of rice.

Volunteers of all ages are always welcome at the pantry. Walsh encourages families to bring their children, and keeps the youngsters busy with little tasks like sweeping.

"Young kids take charge and learn fast," Walsh said. "They follow directions better than adults do."

Joe Cohagan Jr., 16, said he and his friends have been helping out at the pantry since the beginning of the of the school year.

"We are doing it for our service project for Mount St. Joseph's (High School)," Cohagan said on Nov. 3 during the weekly Saturday event at the church. "We're doing this every weekend. I like seeing how it effects the community."

The pantry helps about 250 families, though it could help a lot more, Walsh said.

"The biggest issue ... is finding people we need to help," Walsh said. "There are many different reasons. We know we are helping a third of the families that could use the help. We're trying to expand our reach."

Most of the people who attend the pantry come from five communities — Riverview, Lansdowne, Baltimore Highlands, Lakeland and Morrell Park. The pantry is open to anyone.

"You come here, we serve you," Walsh said. "Most people come from this side of the zip code. Some travel further."

Many of the people who come to the pantry need medical help. Every Wednesday, Catholic Charities attends the pantry to offer its Earnbenefits program. Walsh encourages people to sign up for the program, and if they are refused once, to try again.

"A lot of people get rejected once and a lot of time, they forgot something," Walsh said.

Walsh is planning to have a variety of services for the young and elderly present at the monthly Farmers Market Pantry to provide information. He also is networking with as many food pantries as possible. Working together, the pantries hope to host a health fair in the spring.

For Brittany Brooks, of Lansdowne, St. Clement's food pantry is a blessing.

"I think it is super. It really helps," Brooks said. "I love everything about it. It's clean and everyone is nice. This is a great thing that they are doing."

While each year brings new challenges to the food pantry, Walsh hopes to continue to serve the community and those families in need. It is a service that helps everyone.

"People that volunteer seem to get as much out of it as people we help," Walsh said.

The food pantry at St. Clement is located at 2700 Washington Ave. It is open Wednesdays, 5-7 p.m., and Saturday, 10 a.m.-noon.

For information, call 410-242-1025.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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