Jun. 10—NEWBURY — As members of the First Parish Church of Newbury return to their sanctuary for in-person services this Sunday, a busy food pantry that has been operating there during the pandemic is getting ready to move to temporary quarters while a new building for the operation is constructed behind the High Road church.
Jane Merrow, who co-founded the Newbury Food Pantry with Sue Boccuzzo in 2015, joined about two dozen of the pantry's volunteers hosting an open house last Sunday to show how the operation has been run during the pandemic, continuing to serve 250 to 300 people each week. Half the people served by the First Parish of Newbury Food Pantry live in Newburyport, 25% are in Newbury, and the rest are in Salisbury, Rowley, Ipswich and West Newbury.
Merrow said Mary-Jo and Bryce Anderson are letting the food pantry use their leased garages on Hanover Street in Newbury; volunteers are building shelves and outfitting that space to accommodate the large food storage and distribution process that takes place each week.
By next spring, Merrow said the pantry hopes to be in a new home being constructed behind the First Parish Church. The plans call for construction of a 40 by 40 foot metal building, although shipping has been delayed because of the pandemic and fluctuating prices. The core planning group for the food pantry is setting a fundraising goal of $350,000 for the project.
Like almost every other nonprofit, business and school, when the full weight of the pandemic hit in the spring of 2020, the pantry had to quickly adapt how it operated. Instead of senior bus service bringing people to the church to pick out their groceries and fresh food, the pantry had to set up inside the church with volunteers taking orders for food, packing bags and either delivering them to people at home, or meeting them outside the church on Fridays for pickups.
With help from Pennies for Poverty and Nourishing the North Shore, the First Parish Food Pantry redesigned its operation for online and phone ordering and expanded to use the whole church sanctuary for organizing food and to allow safe social distancing for volunteers working inside. Using the sanctuary worked during the pandemic because the congregation had switched to virtual Zoom services on Sundays.
Demand for food from the pantry surged to nearly 600 people in April 2020, Merrow said, when many people were laid off or had their work hours cut by employers who had to temporarily close or curtail business.
"The pantry has been a lifeline for so many in our community, serving two-and-a-half times as many people as it did a year ago," Merrow said.
With that increase in demand, the pantry expanded its delivery service, doubled the hours of operation and brought on more volunteers, which today number more than 100.
With the pandemic came food shortages as well. Merrow buys the bulk of food for the pantry from the Greater Boston Food Bank, supplementing with purchase of dairy products, eggs and some meat at local markets. When shortages hit, "the local community came together to help. In addition to individual donations, 12 farms, 14 food businesses and 17 service organizations and churches provided food for pantry guest."
Merrow points out that the food pantry is an all-volunteer organization, with 95% of the revenue going for food, and 5% to buy supplies used in food distribution and to pay utilities.
Individual donations comprise 83% of the funding while corporate and service group donations and grants make up the remaining 17%.
"We expect that even as the economy recovers, food insecurity will persist and pantry use will increase," the food pantry said in its literature. "The pandemic has laid bare the economic challenges so many people in our community face."
Merrow told those who attended the open house on Sunday she is optimistic about the fundraising drive raising enough to pay for the food pantry's new building.
"We are blessed to live in a generous community," she said.
The pantry at 20 High Road is open for food donations on Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. To make a monetary donation, make a check out to First Parish Church Food Pantry and mail to 20 High Road, Newbury, MA 01951.
For information go to Newburyportfoodpantry.org, email info@NewburyFoodPantry or call 978-377-7667.
Richard K. Lodge is editor of The Daily News.