CHRIS MORELLI/THE EXPRESS Tonia Royer, Elder Ames and Betsy Tompkins pack up food during Wednesday’s food distribution at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Mill Hall.
MILL HALL — Like elves in a workshop, volunteers filled boxes and bags in the basement of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church on Wednesday morning. Christmas is just days away, but the boxes and bags weren’t being filled with toys. No, these boxes and bags were being filled with food — everything from turkeys and hams to cereal and canned goods were packed up and carted out the back door of the church to cars waiting to have their trunks filled.
Betsy Tompkins, one of the co-administrators of the food bank, took a five-minute break from packing boxes and directing traffic in the pantry to chat about its success. The food pantry operates the second and fourth Wednesday of each month.
The food, Tompkins explained, comes from a variety of sources.
“It’s a combination of many things. We have agency funding; we are a partnering agency with the Central PA Food Bank, which allows us to get things,” she said. “We also receive things from the federal government as well as local sources.”
The local sources, Tompkins said, are big box stores, such as Weis Markets to the smaller mom and pop stores, such as Mark’s Meats and Ingram’s Market. They also get a plethora of food from the Amish and local farms.
CHRIS MORELLI/THE EXPRESS Wayne McCullough of Lock Haven stands near the door of the St. Paul’s Food Pantry during Wednesday’s distribution. It was the final food distribution of 2021.
Each box of food is packed with love and care, Tompkins said.
“We have some folks with special dietary needs. We have people with Celiac’s Disease, we have no-salters and people who can’t have sugar. We have some people we deliver to as well. It gets a little crazy, but we try to accommodate everyone,” Tompkins said.
On this day, the food distribution began promptly at 9 a.m. Like a well-oiled machine, volunteers brought clipboards with orders into the pantry. The boxes and bags were then filled with requested items. The boxes and bags were then carried up the stairs, cars were loaded up and sent on their way.
Rev. Karl Runser talked about the way the food pantry operates in the era of COVID-19.
“We had to re-tool the way that we do this almost a year and a half ago. We knew that we wanted to continue through the pandemic, but we knew also that we’d have to change the amount of contact that we have with people,” Runser said.
In previous years, Runser said, people would come into the pantry, picking and choosing what they wanted, almost like a cost-free supermarket. The pandemic, of course, changed all that. The pantry merely pivoted, moving to a drive-thru version of itself.
“We have curbside delivery now because of all that,” Runser said.
The pantry was forced to start curbside delivery in spring of 2020, when COVID-19 made its presence known in the United States. Since that time, Runser said, there has been an uptick in need.
“From spring to late summer of 2020, we saw an increase of registered folks who would come for the food. The number increased to about 250. I can’t tell you the amount of households, but around 250 individuals were coming. It’s down a little bit now, but it’s still above the level when we entered into the pandemic phase of this,” Runser said.
According to Runser, the second distribution day of the month “usually sees more people.” He estimates that “40 to 48” people come through the church lot for food distribution.
As for the distribution, Runser said that it would be impossible to do it without all of the volunteers.
“It is very much a team effort. We have really good volunteers who have learned the new system and have really embraced it. They’re talking to the people in the vehicles who are picking up the food. They’re getting the food and getting their choices into their hands. We can do it at a faster rate, but we can really keep that relationship going,” Runser said.
On this day, around a dozen volunteers kept the process going. From unpacking or organizing the items to packing up boxes to loading it into cars, it all ran very smoothly.
Judy Briggs of Mill Hall was one of those volunteers helping pack up food.
“I like helping people out,” Briggs said. “There are families and elderly people who are struggling and if we can help them out, we do. I just love doing it for the whole community.”
Working alongside Briggs was Donna Jeirles, also of Mill Hall.
“The more you can help people, the better it makes you feel,” Jeirles said. “You get to know people and it’s like an extended family, truly.”
Wednesday’s distribution was the last one of 2021. They will resume in January of 2022.
Tompkins wasn’t sure how much food was distributed on Wednesday. She estimated that they handed out “thousands of pounds of food.”
“We had a couple of thousand pounds delivered here yesterday,” she said. “Food is constantly coming in. This is more focused toward the holidays and we love doing it because kindness matters.”
For more information about the food pantry, call (570) 736-7460.
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