Foss: Schenectady food pantry seeing ‘a lot of new faces’

SiCM Executive Director Jo-Anne Rafalik, center, with volunteers Sue McKinney, left, and Pearl Tucker Hunter.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
SiCM Executive Director Jo-Anne Rafalik, center, with volunteers Sue McKinney, left, and Pearl Tucker Hunter.

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

No one goes inside. 

Instead, those in need wait patiently in a line in the Schenectady Community Ministries’ parking lot. They wear masks and six feet apart.

Upon reaching the entrance to the pantry, they are given a pre-packed box of food and plastic bags filled with produce, meat and dairy. 

These items are placed on a long folding table in the doorway, where they are retrieved and carried to waiting vehicles or nearby homes. The handing-off of food is quick, efficient and socially distant, a system of distribution that emphasizes keeping staff, volunteers and clients as safe as possible. 

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For months, the number of people seeking help from SiCM held fairly steady. 

Now it’s beginning to grow, an unfortunate sign of the times. 

Millions remain unemployed, while layoffs initially believed to be temporary have become permanent. The federal stimulus checks and extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits have kept families afloat, but that benefit is set to expire this week. 

The result: more people at the pantry. 

“We’re seeing a lot of new faces,” SiCM worker John Murray told me, while handing out food. 

One of those new faces is Mohabir Heere, who said he recently moved to Schenectady with his family and was visiting the pantry for just the second time. 

The 52-year-old lost his job packaging cosmetics at the New Jersey-based Design Display Group at the end of February – “my department was laid off” – and is now applying for jobs in the Capital Region. 

Also looking for work is Padmina Brijnauth, who told me that jobs are hard to come by at the moment. 

“Well, you know what’s going on,” she sighed, while loading food from the pantry into the trunk of her car. “Right now, it’s real tough.” 

At the height of the pandemic, municipalities and non-profit organizations sprang into action, hosting drive-through food pantries that drew hundreds of people and finding new ways to get food to people, like providing grab-and-go meals in lieu of sit-down dinners. 

One of the biggest local efforts was Schenectady County’s Emergency Response Coalition, which brought together community-based organizations, county employees and the Schenectady Foundation to help people in need. 

Between March 24 and June 30, when operations ceased, employees and volunteers made 16,500 deliveries of food and other supplies, benefiting 25,000 people, for a whopping 800,000 pounds of food. In addition, 60,000 meals were provided through organizations such as the City Mission, Boys & Girls Club and YWCA of Schenectady. 

Those are big numbers, and they speak to a tremendous need in the community – a need that hasn’t gone away.

Non-profits such as Schenectady Community Ministries expect to be dealing with COVID-19 and a shattered economy for some time, and The Schenectady Foundation will be working to get food to those who need it throughout the summer. 

“We’re through the health crisis part for now, but now there’s this recession where we believe a lot of people are not going to go back to work right away,” Robert Carreau, the executive director of The Schenectady Foundation, said. “There are families who were maybe making it before this hit, and now they’re not going to be. We do expect that the need is going to be out there for some time.” 

Among other things, the Schenectady Foundation will be sponsoring two to three neighborhood-based drive-through food pantries through September, with the next drive-through pantry scheduled for July 28 at 9 a.m. at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Schenectady’s Mont Pleasant neighborhood. Also planned are monthly pop-up pantries at the YWCA and public housing developments such as Steinmetz Homes. 

It’s great to see non-profits stepping up to meet the increased demand for food and other necessities. 

Their efforts do a great deal to alleviate suffering and make things easier for those struggling to cope. At an uncertain time, they’ve proved nimble and creative, and have swiftly adapted to a changed world to get people the help they need. 

What’s troubling is that the need appears to be growing. 

Schenectady Community Ministries director Jo-Anne Rafalik told me that the SiCM food pantry, which is open three mornings a week, was seeing about 50 families a day right up until the end of June, when the number of families visiting the pantry climbed to roughly 70 a day. 

“A lot of people haven’t gone back to work,” Rafalik said, noting that she has two employees who haven’t been able to return to work because they lack childcare. “Their children are home. We’re seeing new people come in who say that now they need to access the food pantry. I think we’re going to see that need increase.” 

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I’d like to think that Rafalik is wrong – that things aren’t as bad as they seem, that jobs will return quickly and people will go back to work. 

But in my experience, those who work for food pantries, shelters and other anti-poverty organizations are much more attuned to widening cracks and fissures in the economy than the rest of us. If they expect the need for their services to grow, that tells us something.

Much as I’d like to believe otherwise, our economy is sick, and will be for some time. 

We’re in this for the long haul. 

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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