When she started the food pantry at the Roslindale Congregational Church (UCC) three decades ago, Carole Poole had energy, agility and only a few dozen families who needed help.
Today, as she struggles to keep the small neighborhood pantry afloat, she has physical problems that make it hard for her to move around – and a growing clientele, numbering about 800 families.
Through perseverance, and a dedicated troupe of volunteers, Poole and her husband, Ron, are working to keep the effort going, despite increasing demand. Poole said that people of all ages come in, but she has seen a recent influx of more young men seeking food for their families.
“We have been getting more people,” said Poole, executive director of the Roslindale Food Pantry, which operates rent-free in the church. ”They come because they’re hungry and their paychecks just aren’t enough.”
The Rev. Branwen L. Cook, pastor at the church since 2009, said the pantry is “a standard mission of the church. It’s a big part of the church, Roslindale and the surrounding communities.”
Cook said her church offers the only food pantry in Roslindale, so it’s a vital part of the community. It serves residents of Roslindale, West Roxbury and Mattapan. The food comes from donors including Roche Bros. in West Roxbury, Stop & Shop, Shaw’s, Panera Bread, schools in Roslindale, and the Greater Boston Food Bank.
Poole said she does the work because she loves helping people. Since it’s hard for her to walk around, she assists families with questions or paperwork they need to fill out, while other volunteers move items and pack bags. Families must show proof that they live in one of the communities that the pantry serves. They are given food intended to last for two days.
Mary-Eve Mahony, of Roslindale, said she has been helping out at the food pantry for eight years. She also receives assistance from the pantry. Despite the strain on her body, after two knee replacements, she said she enjoys bringing in boxes of food and getting them ready for families.
“I love the families and the kids,” she said. “Lots of elderly Haitian and Greek families come in, and I’ll carry their bags for them.”
Some of the volunteers are members of the church; others are long-time acquaintances of the Pooles.
Mahony believes that the high price of food, coupled with people losing their jobs, has led to the increased demand. Unfortunately, she said, the pantry sometimes lacks nutritional food. Volunteers typically fill up bags with items such as soup, canned vegetables, fruit, beans, tuna fish, cereal, boxed macaroni and cheese, tomato sauce, rice, pasta, milk and bread. She said contributions from Roche Bros. allow for some balance of healthy foods.
Poole said that meats and peanut butter are among the most difficult foods to acquire.
“Two months ago, we ran out of meat and had just a few [canned goods] and cereal,” Mahony said, pointing to shelves in the storage area that were recently stocked with food. “The economy is to blame for the lack of money and donations.”
She and Poole said that getting the food to the pantry can be challenging, too.
In December, “we filled 3,000 bags,” Poole said. “But the hardest part is getting the food here. We could use a truck.” Unless someone delivers the food, Mahony said, volunteers must resort to renting a U-Haul to transport it to the church.
The struggles of increasing demand and inadequate supply are not unique to the Roslindale pantry.
“There has been some decrease in donations,” said Erin Caron, a spokeswoman for the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB). “We’ve increased fundraising to get more food.”
In 2012, the GBFB distributed a total of 41 million pounds of food to pantries and other community meal programs. Caron said that’s up from 37.6 million pounds distributed in 2011. She said that while donations have dropped off, the GBFB has a dedicated mix of corporate partners, individual contributors and foundations.
A few customers who came in to the pantry to get food on a recent Tuesday cited health problems, dwindling income or unemployment as reasons why they needed help.
“[I’ve] been coming for about four or five years,” said Dominic Torre of West Roxbury. “I come because I’m on Social Security, the economy sucks and for health reasons.” He said he doesn’t know what he would do if the food pantry were not around for him and his wife.
Despite the struggles, Poole said one goal keeps her going:
“To make sure kids don’t go to bed hungry.”
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.