Jul 29, 2014

Hunger Next Door: Food Pantries Feed Perry Hall

The Perry Hall United Methodist Church Food Pantry and the Helping Hand Food Pantry in Upper Falls distribute food to struggling families.

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After more than 35 years in the banking industry, Margaret Hubbard was experienced with money. Soon after retiring, however, the 63-year-old found herself gravitating toward those in short supply of it.

Since October 2010, Hubbard, a Perry Hall resident, has devoted her time to working at the  Food Pantry.

"I said to the pastor, I wanted to do something where I felt like I was helping somebody else, and this is where I found my niche," she said.

Hubbard is one of several volunteers, mostly retirees, who work at local food pantries serving families and individuals who struggle with hunger, despite living in relatively affluent communities.

Through the recent economic downturn, Perry Hall has continued to develop , generally valued at more than $500,000.

Only 3.6 percent of Perry Hall residents were living at poverty level as of 2009, compared to 8.3 percent living below poverty level in Baltimore County and 14.3 percent nationwide, according to the  U.S. Census Bureau.

Still, volunteers at the Methodist church's pantry, as well as the Helping Hand Food Pantry in Upper Falls, say that hunger in Perry Hall persists.

And the need for assistance, volunteers said, is greatest during the holiday season.

Pantries in Perry Hall, Upper Falls Feed Hundreds

The Perry Hall pantry is often contacted by those seeking help paying electric bills or eviction notices, Hubbard said.

"But we can't help them there. All I can do is offer them food," she said. "If they can save money they're spending on food and use it on something else, it's not a big help, but whatever you can get is a help."

Volunteer counselors determine how much food each person is eligible to receive, based on a sliding scale of income and household size. They may receive assistance only once a month.

In 2010, the food pantry served 255 clients, and between January and October of 2011, it served 242, according to volunteer Frank Blake, 73.

While many clients are from  Perry Hall, others are from  ParkvilleEssex and Dundalk, Hubbard said.

A Parkville woman, who declined to be identified, brought her stepfather into the pantry for assistance last week.

"You never know who may need help," she said, adding that in past years she helped organize food drives at another church. She said she never imagined that a family member would be on the receiving end.

"You could be a recipient one week and the next week a [food] donor," she said.

While food pantries can offer long-term assistance, their main role is to help clients on the road toward becoming self sufficient, Hubbard said.

"As long as they have the need, we'll help them. Although sometimes it's nice not to see someone back again. ... I hope they're back on their feet," she said.

Less than six miles away from the Perry Hall pantry, through  and into Upper Falls, Helping Hand Food Pantry runs a similar operation with a similar mission.

The  Salem United Methodist Church provides office and storage space, as well as periodic donations to the pantry. But the volunteers who run it are "from all different churches," said 81-year-old volunteer operator Gil Thompson.

Like the Perry Hall food pantry, the church’s once-a-month assistance is based on income and household size.

Last year, the pantry provided assistance to 1,159 individuals and families from Perry Hall, Kingsville, Upper Falls, Bradshaw, Joppa and Joppatowne, Thompson said.

Donna Elliott, a Joppa resident, began using the pantry after she was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago.

"Two teenagers and a granddaughter—it's hard to make it on disability, so they've always been very gracious," Elliott said. "The economy doesn't have prejudice—everybody's being affected by it, whether it's health issues or unemployment.

"People used to be embarrassed to go to food banks and get help, but when you go there, you see your neighbors," she said.

Holiday Season Brings Greater Need, Greater Generosity

Shelves at the Upper Falls pantry were looking unusually bare this past October, said 71-year-old volunteer Jean Byer.

"We were almost out of food," Byer said. "Thank God [for the donations], or we wouldn't have anything to feed anybody."

Among the pantry's biggest contributors are schools, including , ,  and .

"Because they're so generous to us, we go right back and give them stuff," Thompson said.

Counselors at each of the schools designate families of students who are most in need of a food basket for Thanksgiving or Christmas, he said.

Baskets include a frozen turkey, stuffing, fruits and vegetables, and a can of sauerkraut in honor of the area's German roots. The pantry prepares 95 baskets for each holiday.

Thompson said he believes the need among Perry Hall residents is growing.

"At Perry Hall Middle, we generally give them 12 [baskets], but this year they said they've had extra calls. I wish we had more to give them," he said.

The Perry Hall pantry also offers holiday food baskets, although families must choose to be included on either the Thanksgiving list or the Christmas list.

Members of other churches, Boy Scouts and individual donors play an important role in supplying food for the packages. " just gave us a very large donation," Hubbard said.

The results of various food drives generally come in just days before the holiday packages are scheduled to be delivered, she added.

Volunteers at both the Perry Hall and Upper Falls pantries said they used to rely more on food distributions from the federal government.

"They're not as good as they used to be, but we understand that ... I don't blame them," Thompson said, adding that a past shipment intended for Helping Hand was rerouted to areas affected by natural disasters.

Months ago, the Perry Hall pantry received 52 cases of canned food from the federal government, a smaller shipment than in previous years, Hubbard said.

"The reason we haven't gotten as much is because their budgets have been cut. They have to cut back on what they can give," she said. "I think it's the economic times probably, as much as anything."

Hunger a Problem Even in Affluent Communities

Residents may not realize or understand that hunger is an issue in wealthier communities, pantry volunteers said.

Despite one the worst economies since the Great Depression, Perry Hall and some of its closest neighbors—Kingsville, Upper Falls and White Marsh—have hosted , as well as several  projects.

The median household income in Perry Hall exceeded $76,100 as of 2009, compared to more than $64,500 in Baltimore County and more than $50,200 nationwide, according to the  U.S. Census Bureau.

Perry Hall also demonstrates a high rate of home ownership at 80.3 percent as of 2009, compared to 67.8 percent in Baltimore County and 66.9 percent nationwide,  census records show

But it's a common misconception that only those living in poorer neighborhoods go without meals, said Jenifer Patterson, deputy director of programs at the Maryland Food Bank, which partners with several community pantries throughout the state.

"A lot of households are relying on a husband and a wife working, and when one loses their job, their income is halved," Patterson said. "It takes a while—they haven't had the opportunity to adjust their lifestyle. This is true whether you're an executive or a factory worker."

"It's irrelevant whether you have an affluent community or a low income community," said John Shaia, director of programs at the Maryland Food Bank. "The role of a food pantry in any community serves the same function."

"A food budget is one budget you can always skimp on or skip and [pantries] give them some assistance through the storm," Shaia said.

Pantry volunteers said the storm of economic hardship and hunger often takes an emotional toll on clients, who may feel embarrassed about no longer being able to afford enough food.

"Sometimes it's tough. I mean, I've had people come in here and cry," Hubbard said.

, 87, who volunteers at the Perry Hall pantry, said it's difficult not to empathize with those in need.

"There's satisfaction in helping those who are less fortunate in life, but there's a downside—you see the despair on their faces," Wollett said.

The Perry Hall Methodist Church Food Pantry operates 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Mondays-Tuesdays; 1-4 p.m. Wednesdays; 10 a.m.-noon Thursdays-Fridays; and 1-4 p.m. Saturdays. It is located on the lower level of the church at 9515 Belair Rd. in Perry Hall. Clients and food donors may call 410-256-1897 for additional information.

The Helping Hand Food Pantry operates 9 a.m.-noon Mondays-Fridays. It is located at 7901 Bradshaw Rd. in Upper Falls. Clients and food donors may call 410-592-2226 for additional information.

What can community members do to address problems with hunger and poverty in Perry Hall? Tell us in the comments.

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