Before the coronavirus pandemic, catechetical leader Maura Roem from St. Andrew Parish in Westwood would have never thought she would be coordinating her parish’s food pantry. When several volunteers could no longer help due to COVID-19 health concerns, she volunteered to take on the extra job responsibility.
“Back in March, the food pantry was definitely not on my radar, but I knew it was important to support this critical ministry, and the need over the last five months has grown beyond our expectations,” Roem explained.
The food pantry was originally open twice per month prior to the pandemic. Due to the growing need from the community, the service is now available every Thursday evening. The parish also receives donations of breakfast and lunch bags to distribute.
“During this pandemic, our food pantry has been helping so many people who are underemployed, unemployed and furloughed from work,” Roem said. “We are seeing the need grow greater every day. Before the pandemic, our food pantry volunteers would serve 15 to 20 families twice a month. Now we are serving 55 to 65 families each week.”
Along with Roem, today, the daily operations of the food pantry are supported by the entire parish staff, including Msgr. Joseph R. Chapel; youth ministry secretary Mary Keegan and her husband, James, who is also a parish trustee; fellow trustee member Frances Borg; and the parish maintenance team.
Msgr. Chapel is thankful that he could retain his staff during these uncertain times due to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. “It was essential that we had the PPP resources to keep staff in place in order to be able to continue to provide the critical resources of our food pantry that helps so many in our community who are financially struggling,” Msgr. Chapel said. “In order to limit the number of people in contact with one another, the staff took on many good works that were normally run by volunteers.”
An active member of the parish for more than 30 years, Borg has seen the staff rise to the challenge during the pandemic. However, many of those helping are older with underlying health concerns.
“If we didn’t have the PPP funds, I don’t know how we would’ve been able to continue because so much of the food pantry coordination to receive these donations are possible thanks to our parish staff. It’s a blessing to have our maintenance team onsite to help move perishable items into our walk-in refrigerated area,” Borg explained.
The team receives donations of perishable items twice a week, including fresh fruits and vegetables from Trader Joe’s supermarket, and monthly non-perishable donations from Goya Foods and Catholic Relief Services. The staff bags and organizes the items on Wednesday mornings.
“Thanks to the generosity of donations from parishioners and local businesses, each person who stops by the food pantry is given a bag filled with perishable items and another bag filled with non-perishables, based on the size of the family,” Roem said. “The greatest need has been for items sometimes taken for granted: butter, milk, eggs, fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s a blessing each time we receive food donations to restock our pantry shelves.”
Borg noted that the demographics of the diverse parish community have changed over the years and now serves a growing Hispanic community. “I’ve also seen many young couples with children who’ve [recently] lost their jobs. We try to get them the items they need as soon as possible to help support them during this financially difficult time” she said. “It’s amazing how many in our community as a result of the pandemic are suffering from underemployment or unemployment.”
According to U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics, New Jersey has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. In a press release issued by the State Department of Labor and Workforce Development, $10.7 billion in benefits have been issued to unemployed and underemployed New Jersey workers with nearly 1.4 million initial claims since mid-March. Bergen County, which in past years has been ranked as one of the wealthiest counties in the state, has not escaped the financial impact of the pandemic.
“Part of me is very fulfilled and another part very sad,” Borg explained. “There are people coming to us for help who never expected they would have to come to a food pantry. The need is just so great.”
When Tropical Storm Isaias hit New Jersey on Aug. 4, St. Andrew Parish and neighboring communities were left without power. It was also the day the food pantry team normally receives large donations of perishable food. Even with the challenges of working in the dark, the staff managed to shelf and bag the donations.
“We still had to provide the critical services of the food pantry to our most vulnerable populations,” Borg said. “We actually had at least five new families come to us in one week because the food pantry they normally visited was closed due to the storm.”
One woman who has benefited from the food pantry, who prefers to remain anonymous, said the service has been “heaven sent.” Back in April, she was furloughed from one of her part-time jobs, cutting her income in half. She also lost power for several days due to the intense storm.
“I’ve been a parishioner of St. Andrew for about 20 years and I am so grateful for the support I’ve received from the parish staff. The pandemic has greatly impacted my family,” she explained. “I used to go to the food pantry once a month and now I am going every other week. Between the pandemic, my job furlough and the storm, it’s been very challenging as a single mother raising two teenagers. My faith and daily prayer have been helping me get through each day.”
Through these trying times, Roem believes working at the food pantry has also brought the parish closer together. “I feel we are giving out more than bags filled with food. It’s a sense of belonging, letting people know we care about them and giving others faith and hope,” she said. “I believe we are all called to be caretakers of the Lord’s vineyard.”