As often as three times a day, every day, volunteers at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Doylestown Borough fill their church’s Little Food Pantry. The story is much the same at Salem United Church of Christ’s mini-pantry on the other side of town.
Throughout the largely affluent community and surrounding area, food insecurity is growing, said church leaders and others in the social services.
“The need is great, obviously,” said Mary Lou Parry, chair of St. Paul’s outreach committee. “We have difficulty keeping up with it,” she said of the demand at the small pantry. “As much as you put in, it’s gone.”
While some may think the food is being used by the homeless, Parry said, that’s not the case. “The truly homeless can’t use the soups, pasta, macaroni and cheese, as they typically have no means to heat it nor place to eat it. It’s the food insecure.”
The United State Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity “as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life. This can be a temporary situation for a family or can last a long time. Food insecurity is one way we measure how many people can’t afford food.”
More than 44 million people, including 13 million children, experienced food insecurity 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 rose nearly 45% from 2021.
With the mission to “Take what you need; give what you can,” the Little Food Pantry movement began in 2016 in Fayetteville, Ark. The entirely grassroots, neighbors-run initiative now has thousands of pantries across the country.
About a month ago, Salem United Church of Christ placed a food pantry near the front of its East Court Street building.
“We fill it each morning and by the following morning, all the food is gone,” said Beth Mann, chair of the church’s social action network. “Food insecurity in Doylestown is definitely a real thing.”
Everything from rice bowls and soups with flip-top openings (nothing requiring a can opener) to macaroni and cheese and pasta are typically available.
“Single serving cereal and boxed milk are very popular,” Mann noted.
Other efforts to help ease hunger in the area include community monthly meals served at St. Paul’s from April through November. In October, Parry said, 20 people came for a hot dinner. “That was the most we’ve ever had.”
Throughout the winter, Code Blue meals are provided to those in need by the Coalition to Shelter and Support the Homeless, which partners with area churches to provide the dinners. The CSSH also provides free community meals 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 spike, said Marijane Harris, its coordinator.
“With the economy the way it is, we’re seeing more people asking for help with food,” Harris said. Last year, the agency served 242 people. This year, so far, it has helped 167.
“We expect to exceed 2022,” said Harris, “as there are more requests during the holidays.”
FISH decided to increase its weekly family voucher from $20 to $50, said Harris.
“We found we need to seriously help people,” and $20 was no longer sufficient. The money can be used for food, rent or to offset an electric bill,” Harris said. “A lot of people have to choose between those things and medicine.”
At Bucks County Housing Group’s Doylestown food pantry, Steven Keller said, “It’s certainly not going down,” when asked if his agency is seeing a rise in the need for food.
The pantry sees an average of 100 families each week. They receive two bags of nonperishable items, one bag of meat items and one bag of fresh produce and vegetables, said Keller, adding it’s a “supplement” to the family’s needs. A larger household can sometimes receive additional food. Each family can return three times a week, Keller said.
Those who work most closely with the underserved and see first-hand their hardships, remind others that food insecurity takes a dramatic toll on individuals and families.
It’s more than being hungry, explain experts at the USDA and other agencies and organizations that study the matter. It can impact every aspect of life.
From causing serious health issues, when one has to choose between food and medication or seeing a doctor, to affecting children’s ability to learn and grow, to the ongoing stress of deciding to eat or pay rent, the impact of food insecurity is complex and far-reaching.
“There is a need to share your bounty. You may be surprised who’s in need, it could be your neighbor. If you can help, please do,” said Parry.