When Nicole Summers became the executive director of the Bellefonte FaithCentre in 2007, the nonprofit’s food bank fed about 350 people per month. But after the recession a year later, those numbers spiked.
“We certainly wouldn’t have predicted the impact that the recession would have on our little community,” she said. “Our numbers around 2008 just went boom, and no one in 2006 was thinking we were going to have a huge explosion of clients in two years.”
Now the FaithCentre food bank serves about 800 per month, a number that shoots up during the holidays, Summers said. Though they’re growing more affordable, family feasts aren’t cheap. The typical Thanksgiving dinner costs about $50 for a gathering of 10, according to the American Farm Bureau Federation.
A $50 bill doesn’t seem like much for most. But for those under the poverty line, perspective can be folded inside.
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Just last week, for instance, the food bank saw 156 families come through its doors. For Summers, 350 people per month begins to feel distant by comparison.
“I thought, ‘Wow that’s a lot of people,’ ” she said. “Now that number seems kind of quaint.”
Despite its high median household income, Centre County also boasts one of the highest poverty rates in Pennsylvania, according to the Census Bureau.
In 2014, almost 18 percent of the county’s residents lived at or below the poverty line, the Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates found, ranking it behind only Forest, Fayette and Philadelphia counties.
According to the Census Bureau, the poverty line is $24,250 for a household of four. Nearly half of that will be spent on food. For a family of four, MIT’s Living Wage Calculator estimates the typical expense for food alone is $10,271. Those numbers grow bleaker for single-parent households.
But there is hope. Centre County is home to eight food pantries and each feeds thousands of individuals every year. In 2013, they served more than 6,100 combined.
With just the Bellefonte FaithCentre, that number has grown.
“Anytime there’s a need in the community,” Summers said, “Centre County does an amazing job of rushing in.”
Q: What services does the FaithCentre provide?
A: We do a number of different things. We have the thrift store and all the items that we sell are donated and the sales from the store provide about two-thirds of the funding for the other programs that we run. For families who may be struggling, we do give away free clothing. Last year we gave away about $13,000 worth of clothing.
We have a free coat day, a free back-to-school clothing event. The sales at the store then help support our food bank and the pet food pantry, which provides free pet food to low-income populations throughout Centre County.
Once or twice a week we have a free meal. I do the social service end and work with people facing utility termination or eviction. I see about 100 to 120 families a year.
Q: How do people get connected with your programs?
A: A lot of folks are referred through the Community Help Centre. They’ll call a number at the CHC, talk to a volunteer and they’ll get a list of phone numbers of organizations, and then they’ll go through that list. How it works is that each agency does something specific and deals with a specific demographic.
Q: Does traffic pick up during the holidays?
A: Oh yes, from now until Christmas it’s full steam ahead. Our numbers top 1,000 in November and December. There are some folks that just come here in November and December because planning a big Thanksgiving or holiday meal is expensive.
Q: You mentioned the recession had a surprising effect on the community and the food bank. What else has surprised you during your tenure?
A: There were other problems that I just wasn’t aware of, and I think the most vexing is homelessness. When I started, I really was just thinking, “How hard can charity be? This is easy.” And then you realize there are layers and layers of problems and situations involved with homelessness and the tremendous amount of challenges that accompany it.
We’re very fortunate that Out of the Cold was started in Centre County so that there is some place those who are homeless can go during the winter months.
Q: As you alluded to, fighting homelessness and hunger is like fighting a hydra. How do we combat these problems as a community?
A: It is a very challenging problem. The biggest need I see is I find a lot of the folks we serve are trying to find full-time jobs. And there’s sort of a dearth of that. There’s a lot of part-time jobs out there, but finding full-time work can be challenging.
So obviously economic development is important. That’s way beyond my grasp of understanding of how you do that, but I will say that one of the things that Centre County is wonderful about is the attention that they do pay to need. We are blessed with so many charities and so many kind, caring people. In fact when we had the flooding a few weeks ago, there was such an outpouring of charity. People were like, “What else can we do? How can we help you?”
So I think Centre County has an edge up on that. The only other thing is that we just have to remember to be kind. Between social media and some of the other sort of nonsense that we hear or read, I think it’s important just to remember that every person has their individual struggles, and to be charitable and kind and compassionate to the people whom we work with and encounter.