January 29, 2022

Acqua NYC

Fit And Go Forward

As need grows, West Side Food Bank steps up to the plate | coronavirus

KINGSTON — The Al Beech West Side Food Pantry used to be a small operation utilizing the stage of a church, but COVID-19 has increased need so much it has turned into a sophisticated drive-thru operation catering to hundreds of families from all over Northeast Pennsylvania.

The Commission for Economic Opportunity, which supplies much of the food distributed, has delivered 73 percent more food to local food banks this year compared to last year.

“If you compare 2019 to 2020, the amount of food we’d go through in an entire month is now gone in two to three hours of distribution,” said Clancy Harrison, a dietician who is the volunteer president of the food pantry and founder of the nonprofit Food Dignity Project.

The food pantry, located at the Church of Christ Uniting at 190 S. Sprague St. in Kingston, previously only catered to residents of the West Side in Luzerne County.

Now all are welcome.

The food pantry recently hosted its holiday food distribution. Santa Claus was there to greet the facility’s clients.

“We are not turning anyone away because of the pandemic,” said Harrison, 46.

Those stopping by didn’t even have to leave their cars. A host of volunteers loaded boxes and bags of food into the vehicles after getting a number of how many household members the food was for.

“It’s quite the operation,” Harrison said.

In addition to crisis boxes from CEO, which provides most of the food, Harrison partners with local farms to include fresh fruit and produce in the distribution.

“I want to serve food that I would feed myself and my children,” she said.

Harrison said she used to be a “food elitist,” advising people on how to eat healthy without fully grasping how many people couldn’t afford what she was suggesting.

“You can’t eat broccoli if you don’t have access to it,” she said.

Harrison said she and the volunteers try to eliminate the stigma around people asking for help.

“A big piece of food dignity is making sure people feel welcome and not ashamed. When someone is coming for the first time, you could feel the embarrassment. They always are looking like they want to cry. We put them at ease. It’s a culture we’ve been able to create,” Harrison said.

Albany Torres, 33, whose back door opens to the food pantry parking lot, visited recently to stock up on food for her family, which includes her husband and four children. She said she had to stop working at a local warehouse because it became too difficult to work around her children’s virtual learning schedule at school.

“They treat us so good,” Torres said of the food pantry staff.

Stacy Jenkins, 46, of Lehman Twp., who has volunteered at the food pantry for years said the operation used to be “small and simple.”

“Now, it’s unbelievable the traffic we see, the families,” she said.

She said it’s rewarding being a volunteer.

“I love being here. I love the people. I want to give back,” Jenkins said. “It’s rewarding how grateful the people are.”

Those seeking to donate can send checks to the Al Beech West Side Food Pantry, 190 S. Sprague St., Kingston, PA 18704 or Commission on Economic Opportunity — Donations, 165 Amber Lane, Wilkes-Barre PA 18702. Those seeking to volunteer can visit www.ceopeoplehelpingpeople.org/volunteer.

Rich Kutz, director of CEO’s Weinberg Northeast Regional Food Bank, said the West Side Food Pantry is one of the larger distribution facilities of all its partner agencies.

This year, it is serving a big need because of COVID-19, he said.

In 2019, CEO distributed 6,496,697 pounds of food in Luzerne County between April and November, Kutz said. This year, over the same period, CEO has distributed 12,156,675 pounds, he said.

“This is all related to the pandemic,”Kutz said.

Harrison said she’s become a motivational speaker on the topic of food insecurity due to her work.

“I bring the stories from the food pantry to the stage,” Harrison said. “I bring those voices with me.”

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