At the corner of Fifth and Nedro streets is St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Like many among the plethora of churches in Olney, regardless of faith, St. Paul’s has an ornate and somewhat old structure that many people pass without giving a second thought. However, it is what goes on behind the doors of St. Paul’s that separates it from the rest.
Here at St. Paul’s is the only emergency food pantry in Philadelphia’s Olney, section. St. Paul’s pantry is open Monday and Wednesday from 9:00 a.m. to noon. “What we are is basically an emergency food cupboard,” said Tracey Sims-Brooks, church secretary. “We try to supply emergency food for three days in one bag until our customer constituent can get food from other services or other sources.”
Starting just seven years ago through a small idea with generous donations, St. Paul’s food bank has grown quite a bit. “We had a full office staff at that time and knew a few people who had fallen on hard times. So we took up a collection and asked for some donations and that’s how it started,” said Ellen Prodorutti church member and leading volunteer. Through that simple act of consideration, St. Paul’s now serves many families each month. “If you need any indication of the economy and how it’s going, our food kitchen would be it,” explained Sims-Brooks. “There were regulars who came once a month when we served on a monthly basis. Now we see new faces every week. We serve roughly 20-32 families a month.” Although many new struggling families are coming for help, St. Paul’s still sees a good number of regular customers. “I would say that 75 percent of our customers are regulars, and 50 percent of those regulars are senior citizens,” said Prodorutti.
St. Paul’s buys the food it provides from Philabundance, the Philadelphia region’s largest hunger relief organization. Philabundance delivers the food to providers like St. Paul’s. Much of the money for St. Paul’s program comes from a $2000 grant from Shop Rite supermarkets that is accessed quarterly. Additional funding come from donations from the churches congregation and local Boy Scouts. All donations are used by the parishioners to buy more food. Macaroni and cheese, oatmeal and soup make up the majority of meals and food provided by Philabundance. These items are chosen from a Philabundance menu by St. Paul’s. The Shop Rite grant, in addition to the other smaller means of gathering a sufficient amount of money, is just enough to keep the food pantry going. While St. Paul’s program was originally intended to strictly serve the 19120 Zip Code, a number of people from all over the city flock to St. Paul’s due to lack of other food banks. “We get people who come here all the time who aren’t in our district, but we still give them an emergency bag,” said Prodorutti. “From what I understand, Philabundance is attempting to open a few satellites which would help. It’s very hard to service the whole city.” Not only does the church accept people from all over, they also do not need to know why you are there. “This is no time to be judgmental,” stresses Sims-Brooks. “Some people feel the need to explain themselves in fear of being embarrassed, but we understand the tough times people hit.” The only information the food bank needs from clients is the demographics of their household such as how many adults and kids are in the house. But the bags of food provided are not adjusted according family size. Every bag is good for three days depending on how many people are in the family.
The influx of people in need varies from week to week. Prodorutti explained that the end and very beginning of every month are the heaviest weeks as people are waiting for their welfare checks and food stamps.
The holidays are a busy time for the food kitchen as it gets more complicated than having customers come in and get help themselves. “The Boy Scouts are God sent because they collect a bunch of things for us that help us with our Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets,” said Prodorutti. “We can’t do as many baskets as we would like, but we take what we have and deliver baskets to 15-18 of our most needing families. They get turkey, stuffing and all the works.”
The word about St. Paul’s service spreads through out the city in a couple of ways. “One woman told me she saw the Philabundance truck outside and figured out what we do,” Prodorutti said. “The rest must be word of mouth. The Olney Times used to state when we were open, but they’re no longer in print.”
Not only is the food bank in good shape due to word of mouth to a number of families in need, but the church itself is in good shape as well. In recent years the city has seen a number of churches and schools experience an enrollment drop that has resulted in closure. “St. Paul’s English Lutheran Church hit some hard times and closed. I went to their closing ceremonies and cried because I remembered when my church closed,” Prodorutti said. The food bank is not the only service provided by St. Paul’s. The church is in fact extremely busy providing an English class, a senior center, a bible study group, a choir, a bell choir and music classes in July that put on a concert. Also, for the first time in a few years the church is starting a Sunday school due to a recent amount of youth entering the church.
Although they are the only food bank in Olney and receive people from all over the city, St. Paul’s is still enthusiastic about their work and are doing all they can to provide for the community. With the relentless recession, the church will continue to rely on donations and their grant while hoping that other food banks will open soon. “I’ve seen no listings in West Oak Lane and nothing for Germantown,” said Prodorutti. Philabundance greatly helps already, but lets hope they do open others in the area.