South Hills Interfaith Ministries helps provide food, necessities

| Wednesday, June 20, 2012, 2:03 p.m.

Saraswati Bhandari browses the aisles, shopping for her daily essentials: rice, milk, vegetable and dish soap.

And while the set up is like a local grocery story, the South Hills Interfaith Ministries food pantry in the Whitehall Place helps provide free food and household requirements for many of the refugees living in the complex struggling to make ends meet.

"This helps us so much," said Bhandari, 32, who moved to Virginia three years ago from Napal, and relocated to Pittsburgh last July for better jobs for her family.

But her husband, Yadu, 36, this last winter fell in the snow and broke his arm, leaving him without work to provide for the family of three, with another on the way.

Getting food, without assistance from the local pantry once a month, would be "very difficult," said Saraswati Bhandari, who spends her days taking English classes from the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council.

Since opening in 2007, the number of families using the center has grown significantly, said SHIM community relations manager Kate Snyder. The increase was due to a larger need and greater awareness of the facility.

At the Whitehall Place housing complex, formerly Prospect Park, there are refugees from nearly 20 countries that speak nearly 30 languages, Snyder said. Of the nearly 1,200 residents in the complex, about 600 are refugees.

About 180 families from the complex - mostly refugees, hailing from across the globe - rely on the pantry's monthly distribution for supplemental food, Snyder said.

Yet as the number of people using the pantry expanded, SHIM staffers struggled to find storage space for items awaiting distribution inside an old, one-bedroom apartment that also is used by the Prospect Park Family Center.

The area, also, was too crammed to shuffle through the large number of people using the grocery shopping style pantry in a days time, Snyder said.

They had reached their capacity in this small location, and without moving to a larger location, would possibly have had to begin bagging items for distribution, Snyder said, which would take away the selection process for residents they pride themselves on.

"We just couldn't keep serving that many families out of that tiny, tiny space," Snyder said.

In the last few months, the pantry was relocated to a larger space - an old garage - on the ground level of the Maple Drive apartment building.

This space - with a long-term lease - has allowed the pantry to continue providing services to the refugees in the same manner, Snyder said.

"We're able to just stock a lot more supply," she said.

Throughout the area, large pictures on display tell patrons what items they are choosing from. Because many of the refugees struggle with English, photos are an integral part of the process, Snyder said.

Stamped to the front of the refrigerator are pictures of a chicken as meat and as a bird, likewise, for applesauce, there are photos of an apple and the final product.

Patrons shop at the patrons with assistance of a volunteer, many times simply pointing at an item they want.

SHIM staffers also have begun cooking items for "taste testing" to explain to the refugees what the items in the box are.

"Try explaining to a Bhutanese grandma what pancake mix is," Snyder said.

Many times there is "trickle-up learning," where the parents learn what things like macaroni and cheese are from their children, who are taught in school about the foods, Snyder said.

Staples at this pantry, also, are different, since residents are natives of Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Burundi and the like. Pork is banned from the pantry, because many residents have religious or dietary restrictions that do not allow them to eat it, Snyder said.

Rice, flower, sugar and fresh vegetables are popular at the Whitehall Place pantry, Snyder said.

The new space is appreciated by patrons and volunteers, who help distribute goods to the patrons each month, they said.

"Upstairs we could only take through one or two people at a time," said volunteer Gordon Mitchell, 66, of Mt. Lebanon.

With the new space, more patrons can get through, quicker, Gordon said.

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