WATKINS GLEN — At 9 a.m. on March 2, when Zach Marvin unlocked the doors to St. Mary of the Lake Church’s parish center, about 10 people were already waiting outside — even though the event for which they came wasn’t due to start for another hour.
By the time a monthly mobile food pantry got underway, the center was packed with folks — adults of all ages as well as children — seeking to take home badly needed supplies of food. Brandishing totes, shopping baskets and plastic bins, they formed a long, winding line around the gymnasium. They then filled their containers, progressing past a long row of tables containing such items as fruits, vegetables, frozen meats, salad mix, eggs, cheese, walnuts, spices, navy beans, cereal, chick peas, chili and peanut butter.
This scene is repeated every first Saturday of the month from 10 to 11 a.m., thanks to the coordinating efforts of Catholic Charities of Schuyler County. The wide array of items is supplied by Food Bank of the Southern Tier, also a Catholic Charities agency, which delivers a truck full of food on distribution day.
Each mobile food pantry attracts 70 to 100 families, according to Debbie MacDonald, executive director of Schuyler Catholic Charities. She said that in addition to many local recipients, some people travel up to two hours to attend the food distribution.
Laura, who asked that her last name be withheld, came from the Keuka Lake area March 2 and has visited the mobile food pantry regularly for the past six or seven years. She said her financial situation is “a struggle on a day-to-day basis,” and that the Watkins Glen venue has the best variety among food-giveaway efforts of which she’s aware.
“When you’ve got to stretch your food, this is the one to come to,” she said. “I appreciate it a lot.”
MacDonald noted that at each of the Watkins Glen mobile pantries, the available food supply and number of recipients are taken into account so there’s enough to go around. She added that recipients are given information about other food pantry operations in the region as well.
“We always make sure they have food,” she said.
One such ministry is Catholic Charities’ Schuyler Outreach, located in the parish center at 112 10th St., where Marvin serves as pantry facilitator. The pantry is open Tuesdays and Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Fridays from noon to 4 p.m., providing an average of 200 households per month with food as well as personal-care items and cleaning supplies. Schuyler Outreach also offers emergency services related to financial need. Its phone number is 607-535-2815.
MacDonald observed that although Watkins Glen is a renowned tourist community, Schuyler County nonetheless has a high poverty rate. She pointed out that since so much of the tourism industry’s business is seasonal, “people may not work in the winter, and they need food too.”
MacDonald recalled one incident in particular that drove home how humbly people in her area live. At a past mobile food pantry, a little girl was visibly excited to receive a yogurt cookie treat — something that many other people would take for granted.
“She said, ‘I’ve never had this before.’ It really touched me that it meant so much to her,” MacDonald said.
Another appreciative recipient is Ron Powell, who utilizes the mobile food pantry as well as other Catholic Charities services.
“Catholic Charities has been a big part of my life,” said Powell, a Watkins Glen resident who is unable to work due to longtime health issues. “I owe Catholic Charities so much, it’s unreal. They’ve been so helpful and supportive.”
Meanwhile, Laura appreciates the large fleet of friendly volunteers she encounters every first Saturday each month, saying, “They’re family here. The workers, they try to make it as comfortable as possible.”
An example of that hospitality is volunteer Bev Mello, a parishioner at Schuyler Catholic Community, which comprises St. Mary of the Lake and St. Benedict Church in Odessa. For each person who passed by her station March 2, Mello offered a big smile while she handed out food items.
Mello said that having grown up in a family of 17 children, she can readily identify with families who struggle to make ends meet. She added that she doesn’t pass judgment on any individual seeking out the mobile food pantry.
“All I care about is helping them. They’re here because of a need,” she said. “Once we stop judging our neighbors, the world will be a better place.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: For a listing of food distributions around the Southern Tier, visit www.food bankst.org/find-food.