Lansdowne church fills a need with more than free food

It is a Wednesday evening in Lansdowne and the Washington Avenue campus of St. Clement Church is bustling with activity.

Both Baltimore County and Baltimore City residents file through the front doors, down the entry hallway and into the church's kitchen area to collect enough food to last their families through the end of the week.

"It's virtually everyone in the community," said operations manager Tim Walsh of the pantry's demographic. "Whatever the composition of the community, we see it here."

The St. Clement twice-weekly food pantry, which is also open on Saturdays, has been in operation for about six years and has grown significantly in that time.

When it started, the pantry would distribute about 40 bags of food per week, or about 3,200 pounds per month, Walsh said.

"Today, normally, through the period of the year, we hand out about 250,000 pounds," he said.

He said the pantry used to pre-pack bags of food, store them in the front closet of the church and then hand them out to people who knocked on the door looking for the pantry.

"That was our model," he said. "We had no contact with the people we were helping."

The process was not fulfilling.

"The act of shutting the door in their faces was traumatic," Walsh said.

In an economy still fighting to escape The Great Recession, Walsh said it was important to make sure the church opened its doors to anyone and everyone who might need help, and in a friendlier manner.

Now, pantry patrons are given a letter [A, B, C or D] that corresponds with the number of people in their family. That number determines the number of bags of food they can fill.

He estimated that one bag of food provides enough food for two people for three days.

Organizers hope that bridges the gap until the next paycheck comes through or until rent is paid, he said.

A partner of the Maryland Food Bank, the pantry also gets food donations — cans, dried goods, etc. — from local stores.

In addition to those supplies, there are also meals created by the Maryland Food Bank's FoodWorks program.

FoodWorks is the a 12-week culinary training program during which individuals interested in a career in food service learn from professional chefs in the kitchens at the Halethorpe-based Food Bank. The students use donated perishable food to make individual meals.

"They make a bunch of food and freeze it," Walsh said. "We buy it and the frozen food is usually about 10 cents a pound."

Filling in the gap

Almost all of the money to support the pantry and St. Clement's other food distribution programs is donated from parishioners.

"Most of it, right now, comes from our congregation," Walsh said. "We occasionally get checks from outside."

The pantry can now serve 20 to 40 families at each of its local distributions on Wednesdays and Saturdays, Walsh said.

Parents shop freely through the displays of juices, snacks, canned goods, frozen foods and meats at the St. Clement pantry.

While parents shop, children sip on juice or snack on chips or ice cream.

"We want the kids to feel comfortable being here," Walsh said. "The kids get more of a family feel."

Maria Lopez, 32, was at the food pantry late last month, stocking up on food to last the six adults and three children in her household until the end of the month.

"We've been here a couple of times," Lopez said.

"We heard about it through a friend," the Lansdowne resident said. "It's good stuff."

She said the supplies she gets at the pantry help supplement the food she does have at home.

"I guess [I could] make it work with what I have, but this is really good," Lopez said. "They give us some chicken and some snacks and some canned veggies. It definitely helps."

Families like Lopez's are exactly the ones Walsh is hoping to help. That assistance extends beyond providing food for a few days.

After they're done collecting provisions but before they've left the church campus, Dennis Murphy offers help in signing up for a Catholic Charities program called Earn Benefits.

The free digital program allows community members to see if they might be eligible for programs such as food stamps, energy assistance or Medicaid. With Murphy's help, most can start the registration process then and there.

"I don't have money to give them, but I have resources that I can refer them to," Murphy said.

Murphy travels to food pantries and emergency services locations around Baltimore County to help familiarize residents with Earn Benefits.

"We gather information about their income and what their spending looks like," he said. "We crunch the numbers and see what programs they might be eligible for."

In addition to the twice-weekly distribution and the Earn Benefits program, St. Clement also participates in what the Maryland Food Bank calls a Farmers Pantry, a one-stop drop during which 10,000 pounds of food is distributed in one day.

The next is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 17, at Lansdowne Alliance Church on Lansdowne Road.

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