St. Francis pantry managing in tough economic times

Published 6:00 am Monday, November 24, 2008

While some food banks may approach the duty of feeding the needywith an eye toward tonnage, one of Brookhaven’s faith-based foodpantries avoids all semblances of an assembly line.

“It’s about quality, and not necessarily quantity,” said MarkNettles, the spokesman and one of the original organizers for St.Francis of Assisi’s food pantry.

The church’s food pantry, which began operating as an extensionof St. Vincent DePaul Ministries in 2002 at the urging of formerchurch leader Father Patrick Noonan, is a small but flexibleoperation that meets a large need. Nettles said the pantry servesabout 450 families – with more than 1,000 mouths to feed – eachyear.

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It’s not just about distributing sacks full of canned goods,Nettles said. The pantry includes quality items such as cereal,children’s snacks, cooking ingredients and cold cuts whenavailable.

Nettles said 90 percent of the approximately $3,000 required tooperate the pantry comes from the offering plate at St. Francis ofAssisi. Some church members make it their goal to give $100-$200extra each month, he said, and others regularly request theirdonations be earmarked for specific items such as children’s snacks- a giving stipulation that the pantry is happy to follow.

Sometimes getting by on only donations can be challenging,Nettles said, but the church refuses the unwanted influence thatmay come with some forms of financial assistance.

“The [DAILY LEADER and Bank of Brookhaven Holiday Food Pantrydrive] is the only outside help we get,” he said. “We don’t havestate or federal funding, and we really don’t want any – a lot ofthe times, it lets them dictate what you do. We want to displayChristian love for [our clients], and if get into governmentfunding, you can’t ever tell – the day may come when you can’tdisplay a Christian attitude.”

Not being able to maintain a sense of Christianity would takethe ministry out of the ministry – an idea totally unacceptable tothe church pantry operators who always take time to witness totheir clients, Nettles said.

And it’s not a Catholic-only witness. It’s not even aChristian-only witness. Nettles said the ministry’s creed statesthat “no form of charity is foreign,” and that food pantryassistance is determined by “need, not creed or nationalorigin.”

Of course, the volunteers still try. And their method of sharingtheir faith is a little different than one would think. Instead ofchurch members providing clients with information aboutChristianity, it works the other way around.

“We usually ask them to tell us about Jesus,” Nettles said.”When we get the opportunity, we like to talk a little and praywith them – just a little talk, not a lengthy discussion. I’venever heard anyone say, ‘No, I don’t want you to pray for me.'”

Nettles said that sometimes the clients are looking for food fortheir souls more so than food for their bellies. Sometimes, hesaid, pantry volunteers don’t have to ask a client about his or herneeds; they hear them upfront. It’s all part of the ministry.

“Sometimes they just need to talk to someone who understands -just a few minutes of understanding and prayer,” Nettles said.

The church’s food pantry is always filled with understanding,but sometimes it could use some prayer of its own.

Nettles said the operation reached a critical point in 2005after Hurricane Katrina – when the number of mouths to feed inBrookhaven increased wildly with evacuees – and rebounded onlyafter church members dug a little deeper and stepped updonations.

He said the pantry is “managing” in 2008, but the year hasbrought new challenges to the ministry as the financial situationsof client and volunteer alike have tightened up.

“A lot of families’ bread-winners have lost their jobs or hadtheir hours cut,” Nettles said.

The pantry has gained an additional 50 clients this year,Nettles said, while the same amount of money has less purchasingpower to fill the pantry’s shelves.

As a result, the pantry has had to scale back operations. Ithelps repeat clients only twice a year, Nettles said, when it usedto provide for them four or five times annually.

“We hate the fact that we can’t help as much each year as weused to, but it’s economics,” he said. “It’s not easy. We have tolook for sale items a lot. We have done a lot of praying over thisministry.”

Still, the food pantry maintains its commitment to quality goodsand continues to survive.

“We’ll be down to where we know we need groceries, thensomething happens and we get the money to buy them,” Nettles said.”People just start giving a little more. Their hearts cause it;they see the need for their fellow human beings.”

Nettles invited anyone who wishes to help the St. Francis ofAssisi food pantry to do so by either donating to The DAILYLEADER/Bank of Brookhaven Holiday Food Pantry drive – which onlyaccepts monetary donations and will be distributed equally to threeBrookhaven food pantries – or by contributing money or food itemsdirectly to the church.

It’s easy to see the impact the food pantry makes, he said.

“The ones that mean the most to you are the ones who leave intears,” he said.

Church-specific information may be obtained by calling St.Francis of Assisi church at (601 ) 833-1799.