Baldwin food pantry sees needs change in 35 years of serving community
Budha Biswa sorted through the large selection of breads until finding just the right loaf for her family.
She gathered chicken, bone broth, mustard, jelly, juice, cereal, toilet paper and eggs from the long table extending the length of the hall at the Cloverleaf Area Ecumenical Assistance Program food pantry.
“This is very helpful for us,” said Biswa, 29, of Whitehall, and a mother of two who moved to the United States eight years ago from a refugee camp in Nepal. She works in the home care industry and her husband as a warehouse supporter. Still, the free groceries help the family get by.
The Cloverleaf Area Ecumenical Assistance Program, operated out of Pius X Hall at St. Elizabeth of Hungary Parish in Baldwin Borough, is celebrating its 35th year in operation.
The program, which started in 1983 as a small operation run from the Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church, now serves 235 households including over 300 children and 130 senior citizens.
The food pantry, which is supported by eight area churches and organizations of different denominations in the South Hills, services families within a two-mile radius of the Baldwin church, Director Jackie Grachen said.
Its purpose is to “aid families that are in need right now, to get them through whatever personal struggles” they’re going through, she said.
The pantry was started to help laid-off steelworkers in the area, Grachen said. Over the years, it’s seen an influx of Russian, Bosnian and Serbian immigrants. Today, roughly 75 percent of the recipients are Bhutanese immigrants primarily living in The Alden South Hills, formerly Leland Point, and Whitehall Place, previously Prospect Park, housing complexes.
With the shift in population, there has been a change in foods offered, Grachen said.
The Bhutanese immigrants prefer fresh produce, dried beans and rice, and less canned goods. The program also provides emergency monetary assistance for families facing unemployment or underemployment to help pay bills, Grachen said.
They also offer diapers through a partnership with the Western Pennsylvania Diaper Bank and dog and cat food through a partnership with Animal Friends Chow Wagon.
The pantry, a partner of the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, has new families coming every week.
However, many of the recipients are regulars, some who line up at the door before its 6:30 a.m. opening. Food distribution doesn’t start until 9 a.m.
The pantry is run by a core group of about 35 volunteers. They pick up items donated from area businesses, including Giant Eagle, Fresh Thyme and Panera Bread, on weekends and help set up for the distribution that occurs every Tuesday morning.
“It’s a tremendous feeling to help people,” said Ron Stachevich, 82, of Bridgeville, who has been volunteering at the pantry for nearly 20 years.
Like many of the volunteers, Stachevich was looking for something to do once he retired and wanted to help people.
Patty Aul, 59, of Pleasant Hills, began volunteering just a few months ago.
For her, it was personal.
In 2000, she received assistance from the pantry when she was “going through a tough spell,” she said.
Even though she had her nursing degree, she had three children in a short time and was unable to work while she cared for them.
At first, she was embarrassed to wait in line for free food for her family. But everyone was so welcoming, her feelings immediately turned to appreciation.
“In an area that I’m from, I never expected to be in a food bank,” she said. “But you never know.”
It’s OK to seek help, volunteers say.
“There isn’t any stigma involved in coming here,” said Pam Bunda, 69, of Pleasant Hills, who has been volunteering since 2001.
Volunteers said they receive a great deal of gratitude from recipients.
“Sometimes you almost well up,” said Rose Ringloff, 71, of Pleasant Hills, who has volunteered at the pantry for nine years. “It’s just giving back. There’s a need, and somebody has to fill that need.”