Maureen Berstein and Luan McCormick prepare grapes as the fruit in the day's meal at the Sister Maureen Joyce Center's food pantry. (Emily Benson photo)
Maureen Berstein and Luan McCormick prepare grapes as the fruit in the day's meal at the Sister Maureen Joyce Center's food pantry. (Emily Benson photo)
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On a cool November morning, the sweet smell of chicken and potato soup filled the hallways of the Sister Maureen Joyce Center in Albany.

Just outside, a line of clients waits in the crisp autumn breeze for their pick-up turn at the center’s food pantry side door (a precaution kept in place since COVID). Each guest is given a hot meal, fruit, dessert and a cup of soup.

Not even an hour after being open and 30 meals are out the door. The line doesn’t show signs of stopping as more guests continue to arrive — and that’s a slow day.

As the winter season grows closer, so does the growing need in Catholic Charities’ food pantries. For the past few months, the non-profit’s food pantries have reported an increased number of guests. At the same time, many of the same pantries are struggling to fill their shelves with the food that more and more locals need.

“The people were making it before, (but) now there’s a gap and they’re trying to fill that gap,” said Salley Zgolinski, director of community services for Catholic Charities Tri-County Services.

After years of food drops and drives during the COVID pandemic, Catholic Charities finds itself once again on the front lines of fighting food insecurity. This time, the non-profit has had to think creatively about how to get food to families when getting food to the pantries is hard enough.

HIGHER NEED
Catholic Charities oversees 10 food pantries spread throughout the Albany Diocese’s 14 counties: five inside the tri-county area (Albany, Schenectady and Troy) and five spread throughout Herkimer, Schoharie, Montgomery, Greene and Columbia counties.

Sister Betsy Van Deusen, CSJ, CEO of Catholic Charities for the Albany Diocese, said some of the organization’s food pantries are reporting a 25-to-40 percent increase in attendance in the past few months.

“During COVID, different people were showing up who never had to participate in food programs before because the bottom fell out,” Sister Betsy said. This summer, Catholic Charities began to slow its number of food drops in the Capital Region as the world slowly adjusted to post-pandemic living.

“Then as the number of drops in parking lots has decreased, we tell people you have a local food pantry so they know where to go … and so we’re seeing the people who have slowed down are now coming back,” she said.

For many pantries, the need is a symptom of a bigger problem. Higher inflation rates (which are currently running around 8.2 percent) are impacting everything from heating bills to the price of gas, leaving less money for food on the table.

“The people who are already struggling are struggling more,” Sister Betsy said. “It’s not people who are making a lot of money. So (inflation) is 8.2 percent, we get grouchy because it costs more to fill our gas tank but it’s not impossible. There are a lot of people for whom that is impossible.”

Hilltowns Community Resource Center in Westerlo, a food pantry Zgolinski oversees, is one of the areas seeing an increase in families: “In the Hilltowns and Rensselaer, those families were the ones that were making ends meet before,” she said.

Zgolinski noted that other food pantries, like ones in Albany, Schenectady and Troy, are not getting many additional clients but instead are seeing their regular clients more. “The need doesn’t necessarily reflect it in the numbers, in this community at least, but we feel it,” she said. “Instead of coming once a month, they’re coming three or four times a month.”

LOW SUPPLY
To combat the additional visits, food pantries like the Sister Maureen Joyce Center are trying to give out larger meals so guests don’t have to keep coming back — but that itself has been a hurdle.

“The demand is up but our resources are down,” said Michelle Abel, associate executive director with Catholic Charities Tri-County Services.

Supply chain disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to make getting food to the shelves difficult. Coupled with the fact that previous government and state-funded assistance programs from the pandemic are expiring, the price tag at the food bank is higher and every dollar is being stretched.

“We’re not able to get things we can normally get,” Abel said. Things like turkeys for Catholic Charities’ Holiday Baskets are in short supply, and even finding things like stuffing and mashed potatoes is more of a hunt than last year.

And once the pantry is full, “the shelves are clearing off faster than we can keep up,” Abel said.

St. Mary’s in Clinton Heights has helped contribute donations and Green Meadow Elementary School in Rensselaer recently delivered 1,600 pounds of donated food to CoNSERNS-U. Abel said it’s a sign of how “blessed we are to have donors who are giving — but it’s clearing off the shelves,” she said. “My Monday volunteer came in and said ‘Where is all the great stuff donated from St. Mary’s?’ and I said, ‘People came in and took them!’ ”

Sister Betsy said that faith communities and community partners have helped to step up and fill in the gaps. “Lots of people are doing food drives for us and reaching out to say what do you need,” she said. “The faith community is wonderful. So many of our Catholic parishes take up collections and have regular boxes for their food pantries, and other faith traditions, not just Catholics, take up collections.”

Added Sister Betsy: “I just think that as people are sitting down this Thanksgiving to remember your blessings, to think about blessing somebody else.”

To learn more about donating to Catholic Charities or volunteering with one of their food pantries, visit https://www.ccrcda.org.