WORCESTER — The weather last week featured two exceptionally cold days Tuesday and Saturday, with relatively mild conditions Thursday and Friday in between.
But hunger was paying no attention to the thermometer.
"It doesn't make a difference here. Cold, rain, snow, we still feed about 300 people here (a day)," said Billy Riley, manager of the St. John’s Food for the Poor Program at the St. Francis Xavier Center, just a few steps from St. John's Church, 44 Temple St.
"Hunger is 365 days a year. It's indiscriminate, you know," Riley said. "The only difference is for Thanksgiving we give everyone a turkey."
The program runs a soup kitchen from 6 to 10 a.m. Mondays to Fridays during the winter as well as a food pantry.
On Saturdays, although the soup kitchen is closed, the food pantry is officially open from 8 to 10 a.m.
But Riley is aware that cold is also insidious, and so this past Saturday he opened the food pantry around 7 a.m. in case anyone wanted to come in and pick up food items early. Or if they were cold and hungry, he would make them a sandwich.
Saturday was sunny early but online weather outlets were announcing the temperature at 1 degree Fahrenheit "with wind chill values as high as minus 10." To put it another way, it was horrible to be outside.
A way to beat the cold
For homeless people, the St. John’s Food for the Poor Program can be part of a strategy for trying to beat the cold.
"They find a way," Riley said of the resilience of people. On Saturday Riley noted that in addition to local shelters being open to the homeless population throughout the day, warming centers for all individuals were available Saturday at Worcester Public Library, 3 Salem Square, and the YWCA, 1 Salem Square. The YWCA warming center was also scheduled to be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Come Monday at 6 a.m., people can come to the St. John's soup kitchen for a hot meal and to use the food pantry.
But the guests won't all be homeless people by any means.
"Homeless families. Regular people who live in an apartment (but are short of money) — they need food," Riley said. "Some people that work paying their bills (and don't have enough money left over). It's a diverse crowd. Everyone that needs food comes here in the morning."
All are welcome
No matter how cold it is, there's always a warm welcome. "Everybody's welcome here," Riley said.
The food pantry had a steady number of people coming in Saturday morning.
"They like it here because they pick what they like. Meat, pasta, everything's here," Riley said. "You get a lot more food than most places. There's no limit — if you need it, you can take it."
People entering the St. Francis Xavier Center were given a box or a bag (one woman had a shopping cart), and they could peruse and choose the food items set up on tables throughout the room. In addition to staples like cans of soup and meat, there was fresh fruit and vegetables.
The woman with the shopping cart had it pretty full.
"She picks whatever she wants. People don't take stuff they don't need," Riley said.
Benny Correa usually comes to the food pantry every Saturday.
"My job is no good to supply everything at home," he said. "When you come here you get the meat and fruit. It's better for your wallet."
Correa also remarked, "The people are very friendly."
9 years of feeding the needy
There are a number of other food programs doing good in neighborhoods. Each probably has its own history and set of characters.
Riley is a cheery person who has been the manager of the St. John’s Food for the Poor Program for nine years.
"I love doing it," he said. He was part of a family of 16 when he grew up on Lincoln Street. With his new family, "you learn to love the people and they love me. There are people that struggle every day and here I can help them out. I go to church every Sunday and pray for the people. As a Catholic, God says feed the hungry, and that's what I do."
The program is officially closed Sunday, but Riley said he comes in that day as well. Any guest who comes in will likely get a sandwich.
Among the program's many supporters are the Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. and a generous anonymous partner that doesn't want any public recognition, Riley said.
Riley is the program's only paid staff member and relies on volunteers, who were also very welcoming to people Saturday.
"We've got tons of volunteers. That's they way it's always been," Riley said.
Kathy Gervais has been a volunteer for 17 years. She said the program started in the basement of St. John's Church.
"The first day we made two big pots of soup and 75 sandwiches and didn't have any people," she recalled.
Volunteers went outside and asked people to come in, Gervais said. "And from there it bloomed."
The St. John’s Food for the Poor Program has several other initiatives including cooking breakfast each morning for the Hotel Grace emergency shelter on Vernon Street, Gervais said.
For the soup kitchen and food pantry Friday, volunteers made over 800 sandwiches.
Guests were welcome to take extra. "A lot of people will have them for the weekend. Thank God we have this place," Gervais said.
COVID a factor
On Friday the weather was relatively moderate. However, the soup kitchen fed 350 people, Riley said.
If the weather generally has no direct effect on the use of the food program, the pandemic has been more unpredictable.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the number of people coming to the program "went down," Riley said.
COVID-19 also took Riley down as he caught it in the days way before vaccines.
"I was out three weeks. It was tough on me," he said.
When he came back the number of people coming into the soup kitchen daily was about 100.
Then, "the last six months it went way up. It just blew up one week."
For a while as many as 500 people were coming in daily. Now the number is the more typical 300 to 350.
The guests at the food pantry Saturday included young families and among the volunteers were a lot of young faces including almost half a dozen from Notre Dame Academy.
"I like having high school kids here," Riley said.
Antonia Melendez said she and some of her fellow students from Notre Dame Academy come to volunteer at the food pantry every other Saturday.
Kathleen Spillane, also from Notre Dame Academy, said, "I think it's like a nice time for us to reflect on our community and be grateful for what we have."
Jayven Trammell of Worcester, a Boston College High School student, was looking for a program to volunteer for.
His mother, Daniela Harrigan, liked what she saw so much she ended up volunteering herself as well.
"It's such a wonderful environment," Harrigan said.
Volunteer Shauna Marrero, a school bus driver, said, "I like giving back, and what better way to serve your community ... I've built a lot of connections here. I feel it brings the community together, all walks of life and culture."
This article originally appeared on Telegram & Gazette: St. John's Food Pantry operates 365 days to feed Worcester's needy