Helping Neighbors: Family Pantry Helps The Littlest Victims Of Hunger

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Hunger

About a third of the Family Pantry's clients are children. Through its boutique, the organization provides clothing for clients of all ages. DEBRA LAWLESS PHOTO

For the Family Pantry of Cape Cod, children hold a special place.

From food and clothing distribution to Toy Day, Dec. 17, the Family Pantry isn’t ignoring the young ones who make up one-third of the pantry’s over 9,100 clients in Barnstable County.

Already 1,200 children ages birth through 15 have signed up for Toy Day. (The final day for signups for children of current Family Pantry clients is Dec. 2.)

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Kids under 12 “each get a bag of toys, hats and mittens and PJs,” says Executive Director Christine Menard. Also included with the gift is a family game or 1,000-piece puzzle. Older kids, ages 12 to 15, receive a gift card. In a room inside the vast Family Pantry building at 133 Queen Anne Rd. in Harwich, the “toyland” began on Oct. 1 when volunteers began collecting donated toys and purchasing others. Already waiting are an array of stuffed animals and large cardboard boxes that will soon be stuffed with toys and clothing.

In addition, 100 bikes donated by a Chatham family will be raffled. Another Chatham family has donated 400 sets of pajamas.

Last year the pantry distributed $2.4 million worth of food to 3,695 households. That represented 1.1 million separate meals. As well as food, the pantry provides children with clothing and special items such as back-to-school backpacks stuffed with new pens, paper, rulers, small calculators and other incidentals.

When clothing is donated, volunteers sort through it—last year 29 tons of clothing came in. Children’s clothing is retained at the pantry and given away. (The best adult clothing is sold at fair prices through Second Glance Thrift Boutique at 265 Main St., West Harwich. Every dollar brought in there goes to the Family Pantry and represents four meals.) Children’s clothing is always in demand because children’s clothing is often handed down in a family rather than donated, Menard says. Families who come in to the pantry for their bi-weekly food pickups can select a full bag of children’s clothing during each visit as well as three full bags of adult clothing.

“If you can’t afford your food, you probably can’t afford your clothing,” Menard says.

Food at the pantry is designed to be as nutritious as possible. The pantry’s goal is for 30 percent of all food to be fresh; currently the pantry is at 20 percent, Menard says. The pantry stocks dry goods such as brown rice and wheat pasta—“as nutritious as we can possibly provide,” Menard says. Gone are the days of “belly fillers,” high-salt, high-carb, high-fat items. “Better nutrition means better health—less expense for medical care,” she adds.

Now, if you think “nutrition” is a word that might make a child’s eyes cross, you might be right. The pantry stocks food that appeals to children such as beans, pasta with spaghetti sauce and fruit. “Things they’ll eat,” Menard says. And “they can still get a cookie at our pantry” with low-fat milk. “You need a little joy. If you’re a kid you’ve got to get a cookie.”

Studies have shown that children need to be fed properly to concentrate in school. “They’re not thinking about being hungry, they focus,” Menard says. “They’re not crabby.” She says that school nurses see a lot of kids coming in with belly aches—“that’s hunger. A granola bar and a carton of milk fills them up and takes that angst away.”

The Family Pantry caters to children in other ways, too. In the summer when school is out and clients come in to pick up their food, they often bring their children with them. It can be boring for a kid to wait in a line. Last summer a group of teens ran a crafts section for kids in the conference room while their parents stood in line.

“They did it all summer long, they were wonderful,” Menard says of the teens. “There were no cranky kids.” The teens plan to return next summer.

Food is distributed every two weeks. In season, the Family Pantry grows 7,000 pounds of fresh vegetables in its 9,000-square-foot garden on land leased from the town of Harwich. On the Sunday before Thanksgiving it distributed 500 turkeys.

“A family of four will go out with an over-flowing carriage,” Menard says. “The money they save will help them to stretch that budget and contribute to the community. Feed them, they stay on the Cape.”

And if a child for some reason wants, from the fresh food, only peaches? “We can accommodate that,” Menard says.

Right now the Family Pantry is looking for donations of mittens and gloves, pajamas, family games such as Monopoly and puzzles for Toy Day. Other children’s needs are diapers and baby formula. The Family Pantry always seeks gently-used clothing—men’s, women’s and children’s—as well as health and beauty care products, jewelry, home goods, non-upholstered furniture and artworks. If you would like to join the 540 volunteers who save the pantry $1.6 million in annual labor costs, visit www.thefamilypantry.com or call 508-432-6519.

To contribute to The Chronicle's Helping Neighbors campaign, click here. Readers can also send a tax-deductible donation to The Family Pantry, 133 Queen Anne Rd., Harwich, MA 02645, writing “Helping Neighbors” in the memo line.  


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