Students help feed success of food pantry in Cranberry

Cranberry Area High School students who purchased food, paid for by contributions from fellow students and faculty members, for the Cranberry Area Food Pantry are, from left, Kaylee Hartzell, Keera Oakes, Ella Fisher, Lilyan Carter, Adam Cross, Carter Bell, Craig Curfman and Ashlyn Shuffstall. (Submitted photo)

An old school has claimed the allegiance of hundreds of students and faculty a short distance away in a new school, and it has nothing to do with reading, writing and arithmetic.

It’s about food and families.

“While they have done it over the past four or five years, this year they really went all out,” said Janet Shaw, a founder and now key organizer for the 10-year-old Cranberry Area Food Pantry that sprawls across several former classrooms at the old Cranberry High School. “We are so grateful to them.”

The pantry, open free to residents of Pinegrove, Rockland and Cranberry townships that comprise the Cranberry Area School Distinct, does not rely on proof of income when it comes to providing food. Twice a month, boxes of food and assorted toiletries are available for the taking at the old high school.

In a seemingly perfect match, the former school setting and its new mission fit students and staff members at the successor high school. A yearlong collection of loose change, promotions such as tossing a few dollars into the pot to wear jeans one day to school, and random but generous monetary donations plugged “close to 1,000 pounds” of food into the pantry larder in November.

“These kids then went out and purchased the food, picking everything from gravy and beans to mustard and flour, brought it to the pantry, unloaded it and put them on the table,” said Shaw.

“We, the volunteers, saw the joy these students demonstrated bringing in this food. It was wonderful to see, and our hearts are lifted to see these young people who worked hard to enable us to share this food with others.”

Adding to the students’ largesse was about $2,000 donated by staff and parents. There was more, too, as Cranberry students from language clubs and sports teams volunteered to help cart off groceries on distribution days.”And, the Cranberry teachers are pushing community service and that is wonderful,” said Susie Blair, a volunteer who helped pack boxes on Friday.

How it started

Shaw, a retired nursing supervisor, and Wilda Cotton were among those who attended a meeting several years ago to address food shortage issues for local families. Leading the charge were members of the Seneca, Heckathorne, Rockland, Ashland, Van, Cranberry and Pine City United Methodist churches.

“Through trial and error, I became the director,” said Shaw with a laugh. “It started with one room where food was stored on skids. The volunteers, and there weren’t too many, helped about 30 families a month back then.”

Today, the Cranberry Area Food Pantry boasts more than 75 volunteers, thousands of pounds of food stuffs from frozen meat to fresh vegetables, a hefty roster of food sources and a growing food box distribution that hit 424 in November.

The sources for fresh, frozen and canned foods include the Second Harvest Food Bank in Erie, local churches, Clark’s Donuts that provides “hundreds of donuts” and Walmart in Cranberry Township that offers “3,000 to 4,000 pounds a month of food” to the Cranberry pantry, said Shaw. Some foodstuffs from federal agencies also come into the pantry.

The monthly cost for food and a range of household goods from plastic bags to cleaning solvents earmarked for distribution is about $4,000 a month, said Shaw. There are no paid staffers and no overhead, save a few bookkeeping supplies.

“For example, we distribute toilet paper and that costs us almost $500 a month,” said Evelyn Spence, who handles the pantry finances. “We get no federal aid except for some food items, but we do receive generous contributions from local clubs, service groups and individuals.”

How it’s done

The collection, packaging and distribution systems have been fine-tuned to an extent that dozens of men and women, all volunteers, move steadily along an assembly line to retrieve food, tote cans and boxes, fill boxes, and stack them for the next customer pickup.

Boxes, designated for a single person or larger families, contain rows of food ranging from jarred pickles to cereal, cookie mixes, sauces, peanut butter, crackers, pasta, soup and more.

Standing in her place in the fill-the-box line, volunteer Kay Say quips, “I have the softest job here” as she puts two rolls of toilet paper in each box.

The boxes are packed on the Fridays before the distributions, set for the second and fourth Mondays of each month.

On those Mondays, sidled up along the rows of packed boxes are long tables filled with more things. They include personal care items, assorted foods, cleaning materials, baked goods, disposable diapers and a variety of other donated items. Frozen and canned meats as well as fresh fruit and vegetables are also made available.

“Much of the food items are different in each distribution,” said Shaw. “We change up the menu.”

Room after room in the old high school is filled with shelves and boxes of food that straddle an area also lined with freezers that hold meat, pies and vegetables. The shelving was built and, in the case of the old library, refashioned by volunteers to hold the supplies.

Pointing out the trove of food, volunteer Blair said, “We’re not very pretty but we are efficient. We know where everything is and what we have.”

Taking a quick break from supervising the box-packing operations, Shaw held open a ham-filled freezer and offered, “There is one thing we need, a new freezer. And maybe a refrigerator. There’s a lot of food here. But there’s a lot of need, too.”

How it helps

Shaw has seen the lines get longer over the years for the free food boxes.

“We don’t advertise this and it is mostly by word-of-mouth that people know about it,” she said. “I feel the need is greater now than even before. Seventy percent of the people who need this never miss a distribution, and that’s true particularly among older people.”

Anna Marie Creighton, a volunteer, is the keeper of records, a chore she computerized, for the Cranberry pantry. She has seen the numbers grow, too.

“A lot of people who rely on this are the seniors. Some of them don’t get very much in their Social Security and that makes it difficult. There are so many women, it seems, in that situation,” said Creighton.

While the pantry accepts food donations, it also depends on monetary contributions. Those have been very generous, said Shaw.

There is a formula tucked into deals made between food pantries and non-profits as well as commercial food sources. The end result is buying a lot more for a dollar, said Blair.

“When you buy a shipment of ‘assorted foods’ that can be cereal or soups and such, you pay 13 cents a pound. So for every dollar donated, we can buy about seven pounds of food. That adds up to a lot,” she said.

Contributions may be sent to the Cranberry Area Food Pantry, P.O. Box 446, Seneca, PA 16346.

Volunteers, too, are always welcome.

“People who don’t volunteer don’t know how much fun we have doing this,” said Creighton, getting ready to scurry off and pack boxes. “C’mon, it’s fellowship time.”