Food seekers flock to pantry after wrong info gets out

Vehicles line the driveway to Salem First Friends Church for an unadvertised food giveaway Wednesday afternoon, with the traffic stretching down Jennings nearly to Eighth Street at times. With several large plants shut down, including Ventra and MAC Trailer, and many businesses closed or curtailed due to the coronavirus, food pantries are expecting more people in need. (Salem News photo by Mary Ann Greier)

SALEM — First Friends Church luckily had more than five loaves of bread and two fishes to feed the multitude that showed up for an unadvertised food giveaway Wednesday.

When Pastor Pete Fowler saw the line of cars stretching through the parking lot and down Jennings Avenue for a few blocks, he said he thought of the loaves and fishes Gospel reading, when Jesus fed a crowd with barely enough to feed a boy.

He said to himself, “We’re gonna need something like that.”

Well, they didn’t have 12 full baskets left over at the end, but the miracle still happened — everyone left with some food.

“Our shelves are now empty and all the extra stuff we got from Second Harvest is completely gone,” Fowler said.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to go.

First Friends Church operates an emergency food pantry normally once a week by appointment only to dole out two to three days worth of food for people in dire need. People are supposed to call ahead. With more need expected due to job loss from the coronavirus, they added a couple of hours on Wednesday.

Fowler said somehow word spread on social media Tuesday night and Wednesday morning that the church was having a food giveaway that was open to anyone, no appointment needed and no identification required. Whoever posted the information didn’t include the protocols, such as the need for an appointment.

The situation just kind of happened, the church personnel had not planned for it, but Fowler said “we just kind of rolled with the punches as best we could.”

With the Salem Community Pantry closing last week until further notice due to the pandemic, he said he was “nervous about how inundated we might be.”

Once the cars started lining up, they could see there was a need. He received a phone call at 12:30 p.m. about all the cars (the pantry wasn’t opening until 1), and when he arrived, he had to park at Buckeye school and walk across the yard to the church property.

Typically the pantry serves 15 to 20 households a week with one or two volunteers giving out the boxes of food. On Wednesday, 113 vehicles came through the line which stretched nearly to Eighth Street. A dozen volunteers boxed up the food, passed it out and handled traffic control.

Fowler himself stood on Jennings Avenue directing vehicles near the church entrance, with another volunteer further down the street. They didn’t track where people came from, but just counted vehicles. He said Second Harvest has relaxed some of the rules and guidelines they normally follow for giving out the food due to the pandemic.

“We don’t know yet when our next attempt to help will be,” he said.

The First Friends Church pantry is typically an emergency food pantry by appointment but they’re reviewing their policies in light of the need. He said the plan for the pantry will be posted on the church’s Facebook page so that people know what they need to do and they’ll make an announcement in the newspaper.

“We love our city and our community, but we don’t have the capacity to do what we did today,” Fowler said.

Barring the traffic jam, he said there weren’t any issues that came up. When they started running out of boxes, they took boxes that were already broken down for recycling and put them back together.

“We were thankful that people were so gracious with us,” he said.



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