Camden County food pantry temporarily shutting down: 'It does bring tears to your eyes'

Organizers say between 800 and 1,000 families arrive each week to pick up groceries.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2024
South Jersey food pantry temporarily shutting down | Here's why
Camden County food pantry temporarily shutting down: 'It does bring tears to your eyes'

MERCHANTVILLE, New Jersey (WPVI) -- The Grace Episcopal Church Food Pantry in Merchantville serves hundreds of people in the community every week.

Now, people in need will have to find somewhere else to go for a meal -- at least for now.

Volunteers broke the news to families who visited the pantry on Wednesday.

"It does bring tears to your eyes because you see these people, you know what they need. You know that they do need to come here and you're not able to fulfill those needs," said volunteer Linda Purves.

Organizers say between 800 and 1,000 families arrive each week to pick up groceries.

"It's hard because I was going to a different pantry and they closed down because they couldn't get the help they needed," said Louise Zienneker of Cherry Hill.

And that volume, according to the borough of Merchantville, has become too much and the pantry needs to pause operations.

Typically vehicles are backed up onto Maple Avenue.

Pantry organizers met with borough officials last week.

"Volume was the word that kept coming up. It's beginning to overload the built environment," said Rev. Bob Fitzpatrick of Grace Episcopal Church. "Where do you put this many cars in finite space? It's a fair question."

This pantry has grown tremendously in the past few years -- from 50 families per week five years ago to hundreds of cars showing up here every Wednesday.

In a statement, Merchantville Mayor Ted Brennan said:

"Grace Episcopal Church leaders and Borough staff, including our Chief of Police, met last week to discuss ongoing safety concerns related to the food pantry currently run by the church. The Borough is very supportive of the food pantry and its service to our larger community and we recognize that food insecurity is a major issue plaguing our community and our surrounding areas. But what began as a small food pantry of 30 cars has ballooned into over 900 folks coming to the Borough each Wednesday. The church leaders and pantry operators agreed during the meeting that the food pantry had grown beyond their control at this point.

The Borough expressed concerns about public safety and public nuisance as we have continually fielded complaints from residents over the past few months about both. The Borough and church leadership agreed the pantry could not continue in its present form, that a pause was necessary and that a plan for a path forward must be generated and agreed to by the parties so we can address the concerns of the public and run a safe pantry. We look forward to working with Grace Episcopal to create a plan that works for all and the reopening the food pantry in the very near future."

Church leaders hope to either find a new space or find a way to make the pantry work at the church with better traffic flow.

The Food Bank of South Jersey, which supplies most of the food given out at Grace Episcopal, says it has alerted other nearby pantries that they may see an uptick in clientele and workers. The pantry says it will be sending more food to those pantries to accommodate that.

Fitzpatrick says he hopes it's a matter of weeks - not months - before they can resume operations.