With holiday needs increasing, food donations are decreasing

Preston Benson backs up his brown Chevy Astrovan to the double side doors of Bethel Church of State College on South Atherton Street, just down the hill from Scenery Park.

He slides out of the driver’s seat, what looks like a prison guard’s keys dangling from a lanyard around his neck, and he pushes open the vehicle’s split back doors, one whipping open with a gust of late October wind, the other slowly against it. It’s midautumn, but the slate-gray sky and the angry bite of the wind are harbingers of the colder season yet to come.

The 50 or so parishioners file out of the church’s main door, a place where their pastor has stood sentinel for the past two years, wishing them a blessed week as they make their way to their cars and, eventually, back to their homes. They crane their necks to see Benson, 43, loading the van with reused white plastic grocery bags and a few old boxes.

Some holler in his direction, but among the crinkling of bags, clanging of canned goods inside them and broad sweeps of dry leaves against the pavement, their voices trail off or are carried away by sporadic gusts. The pastor continues loading the van, uninterrupted, save for a few handshakes of those who made a special trip nearer to the back of the parish hall.

One woman pops her head out one of the side doors. It’s Flo Green, and she’s decided to help Benson by picking up bags and sliding them a bit closer to the long black rail that pens in a handicap ramp and doubles as a loading dock.

“Heading to the food bank,” she says, more of a statement than a question. A longtime church member and volunteer, she’s well-aware of the months spent collecting perishables and canned goods to bring to an area food bank.

“Tomorrow,” the pastor calls up, thanking her for her help.

Keeping good on his word, when tomorrow — Monday — comes, Benson and two of his three children, Hannah, 4, and Grace, 2, all bundled in their colorful fleece jackets and hats, walk up the steps to the State College Area Food Bank on Hamilton Street, just off South Atherton Street.

Inside, Benson is greeted warmly by Linda Brown, a three-year food bank volunteer who’s served a year on the board of directors. The lobby is somewhat cramped and its carpet well-worn, and a portion of the small area is bordered by shelves containing canned goods, dry goods and, surprisingly to Benson, a stack of fresh vegetables.

“There’s the good stuff,” he says, half smiling with his brows raised, eyeing several stalks of beets and what look to be rutabagas. He turns to hear another friendly voice, that of Carol Pioli, the food bank’s executive director.

He introduces himself, and his girls climb onto metal chairs Pioli has just unfolded. Brown hands them fruit juice boxes. As the kids fiddle with the bendy straws, Pioli tells Benson to pull around back, and she wheels an oversized grocery cart down a long, thin hallway to the back door, where she guides the pastor in.

The State College Area Food Bank, which has been a staple in the community since 1982, serves a greater area than its name might imply. It’s bounty blankets most of the Centre Region, and the nonprofit works with more than a dozen agencies to keep people from going hungry.

Pioli says that besides those needing help in the borough, seven other townships are served. “Basically, wherever there’s a need,” she says. “We won’t turn people away.”

The food bank has what’s called a re-donation program. Food that’s donated there is redistributed to 18 nonprofits, such as Centre House, Community Help Center, Park Forest Day School, Strawberry Fields and the Centre County Women’s Resource Center.

This has been an especially tough year for the food bank. Earlier this year, postal carriers hosted their annual canned good drive — the Stamp Out Hunger campaign. But this year, due to what Pioli blames on inclement weather, the postal carriers collected only a fraction of their usual haul.

That puts a serious dent in the food bank’s efforts for the 821 households and several agencies it helps.

“It was pretty significant, to the point that last year we had 30,000 pounds of food,” Pioli says. “This year, we received about 18,000 pounds of food, and that was because of the horrific amounts of rain.”

With the holidays fast approaching, pocketbooks stretched thin, mobile home parks closing and federal workers’ paychecks having been delayed by the government shutdown, the combination of low donations and high demand is taxing.

Pioli explains that the food bank has seen an uptick of calls, especially those asking if the government shutdown is affecting — or will affect — the operation. She’s quick to point out that while the nonprofit doesn’t rely on federal dollars, federal programs, such as cuts to the food stamps program and the interruption of paychecks to federal employees, do have a ripple effect.

The food bank also has seen a change in the household dynamic.

“What we’ve noticed is the size of households we are helping is changing,” says Pioli, adding that many more homes have just one or two people living in them, rather than entire families. Another change is that there is a more consistent demand.

“We’re basically seeing the need as being supplemental food,” says Pioli, who’s spent 20 months at the helm of the food bank. “At one time it was emergency food. But now, it’s supplemental.”

While the executive director talks about the importance of food drives such as Bethel Church’s, Brown weighs, then announces, the total.

“It’s 136 pounds,” she says. Benson raises his brows again. “Not bad for a small church.”

Everyone nods in agreement. It’s food drives such as these that keep a continuous flow into the food banks, same as with any community. There are seven food banks in Centre County and countless more food pantries set up largely in spare church rooms and at other nonprofits.

Benson’s church collects food, but doesn’t distribute it directly to those in need. He says this year’s drive actually started in the late summer, when his congregation donated book bags, complete with school supplies, to students from lower-income areas in Boalsburg. The church held an event at one such neighborhood in August: Bring a canned good, get a book bag.

“We don’t have a food pantry, but we do get requests,” Benson says. “That’s why we decided to do a food drive this year, to help out those in need in our communities, letting the food bank itself take care of that need.”

As Brown unpacks Benson’s bags, she pauses, then checks expiration dates. Benson tells her about the canned goods-for-book bags campaign. Brown smiles: “I knew some of this stuff looked familiar.” Apparently, it’s not all that uncommon for the food bank to get back what it once doled out.

It’s also not uncommon to get expired food back. Brown says she’ll filter through the items, culling out any dated goods.

As the weighing continues, a steady stream of people file in and out of the cramped quarters. Some have bags for donations, others ask where they can unload their vans. Still another man is looking for food. Pioli explains that the bank isn’t yet open. Monday’s hours, posted on the door, are 1 to 5 p.m.

“We won’t let anyone go hungry,” Pioli says. The man politely closes the door, saying he’ll be back later and apologizing for his interruption.

“We had a lady come in here,” Pioli recalls. “She was really struggling; unfortunately, she didn’t meet the government criteria. She had cancer, and she was living on oatmeal. So we went and we found donated food to give her. Because when you’re battling cancer and you’re just eating oatmeal, it’s not working. So this is just one of the things we do.”

As she tells the story, a small assembly of women quietly waits in folded chairs to get assistance unloading their van. They listen intently, nodding as if in support.

The entire operation is an exercise in symbiosis: Food comes in from those who collect it and goes out to those who need it. Those clients use the donations to get back on their feet. When they eventually do, they can contribute either to society or to the food bank itself.

But Pioli says it’s more than an exercise; in her business, relationships are forged.

Pioli tells a story of a woman, a monthly client, who represents more than just repeat customer, or a number on a chart.

“One morning over the summer, I was reading the obituaries, which I do every morning, and I saw someone with a similar last name had died. ... It was our client’s father,” she says, looking away momentarily, as if re-imagining the encounter. “So I cut the obituary out, put it on the record, so when the client came in, the volunteers addressed the client, and she just was overwhelmed, and tears just started coming down from her eyes.

“Here it is, a volunteer who checks in at the food bank, acknowledged the passing of her father.”

She also outlines how she works with the county for emergency distributions, like when an apartment building on Waupelani Drive in State College burned in July, leaving 40 people without homes.

Make no mistake: While the food bank is a charity, it’s also a tightly run business. And it’s that business acumen that’s turning the page to a new chapter for the nonprofit. By early next year, Pioli says, the food bank will move from its current digs on Hamilton Street to 1321 S. Atherton St., still in State College.

The move will relieve the food bank of its cramped quarters, going from 1,400 square feet to about 5,000 square feet. No one misses the irony of the move, however. While the organization will be able to help more people by being able to offer more food and new services, the need for serving more people means there are more people in need in the Centre Region.

According to the food bank’s annual report, the nonprofit received more than 250,000 pounds of donated food in 2012, and despite the number of unique households at 821, the number of people served equals 2,126 people, with 37 percent — or 786 — being children. Of the total amount of people, 180 were first-time clients.

As the economy continues to lumber along and the population continues to grow in Centre County, the need for food could grow simultaneously. Nowhere is that noticed more than during the holidays, Pioli says.

“This is the biggest time of the year, from November to the end of December,” she says. “In addition to the regular distribution every 30 days, (clients) receive an additional holiday distribution for Thanksgiving and a special holiday distribution for Christmas.”

With donations down, meeting that need is continuous battle, but it’s one that large drives — such as the postal services’ or the Boy Scouts’ autumn campaign — as well as the small drives help win.

Benson, the Bethel Church pastor, is definitely in that smaller camp. But he believes every can or boxed item makes a difference.

“We don’t have a lot of resources, and I do get phone calls from folks looking for food,” he says, closing the doors to his van. “Because we don’t have our own food pantry, it’s important for us as a congregation to be able to give back to the local food pantries because we know that’s where the calls are going to be made, and that’s where I will refer folks to when they call me.”