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Jo Carrrignan and Leigh Titon look over customer requests at the St Vincent de Paul food pantry on Union Avenue in Laconia. The volunteer- run pantry needs both food and financial donations, especially since its main source of income, the thrift store, has closed during the coronavirus. (Courtesy photo)

LACONIA — The virtual supermarket outside the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s food pantry and thrift store on Union Avenue  features a smorgasbord of free bread loaves, day-old pastries, fresh asparagus, broccoli, squash, raspberries and pineapples cut into chunks. Customers “shop” here after they collect a free box of meat, soup, canned vegetables, pasta, sauce and peanut butter by sliding a checklist under the door.

For 30 years, the charity’s pantry, born in the basement of  St. Joseph Catholic Church, has served the area’s needy, an ever-expanding clientele that sometimes includes generations of the same families. The volunteers who run it – 120 in all – drive from as far as Bristol and Moultonborough, and frequently greet people they’ve seen for years.

“There are different types of volunteer jobs, but this is one that feels really worthwhile,” said Donna Jurka, a volunteer who lives in Laconia.

“It’s a corporal work of mercy,”said Leigh Tilton, who has volunteered for 20 years, mostly as pantry receptionist. She runs into regular clients and their children while shopping at Wal-Mart. “The need is great, and with a lot of people out of work from COVID-19, the need is going to be even more.”

The longstanding Laconia food pantry hasn’t yet been flooded with requests – but it’s bracing for an explosion in demand as layoffs and unemployment soar as businesses shrink or close down during the coronavirus pandemic. Jo Carrignan, president of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, takes calls from people who are worried about car payments, rents, and medicines. “People are concerned about their basic needs,” she said. “Some people haven’t come in a couple of years, and now they’re needing assistance.”

There’s a looming Catch-22: as paychecks disappear and savings are used, donations from many local citizens vanish, and charities exhaust reserves and rely more heavily on regular or well-heeled donors, many of whom are also preparing for the worst, sheltering in place, and monitoring their resources. Almost no one is dropping off food, Carrignan said. The thrift store, which historically provides 50 percent of the pantry’s $50,000 annual budget, closed March 10 with no definite date to reopen. 

“We’re not worried about how often they come. Especially the families.  You’ve got to take care of the kids and the elderly,” said Carrignan, who hopes giving will increase.  Right now, the pantry’s financial donations are down 40 percent. “We all get caught in our own world and kind of forget the outside world. Monetary donations will be our safety net.  We have been restricted on how much we can buy.

“We have no major fundraiser.  We go by people telling people, and it’s always worked for us,” she said.  “God always provides.  We open with a prayer, and we always thank Father for the donations.  It’s one of those things.  You pray it into existence.”

On any given night, the St. Vincent DePaul pantry provides ample boxes of food for 30 to 50 families.  Half an hour before it opened Wednesday from 6-8 p.m, 16 people were waiting outside or inside their cars, including an older woman in a decades-old convertible. Another who declined to be named said she’d “never done this before.”

“I’m afraid to even go out to the supermarket,” said Kathleen Canto of Gilmanton, wearing a mask. She is separated from her husband and has three young children at home. “I just can’t afford food right now.”

“When you’ve got four kids, this really helps,” said Holly Crace of Laconia.

“The people on the other side of the counter are really nice. They know my family,” said her husband, Abram Isabelle, whose family used the pantry when he was a child.

“The economy is such that it’s hard to buy food sometimes,” said Isabelle’s father, Donald.  “You have to space it out between bills.”

Across the Lakes Region, during this open-ended and unprecedented health and economic crisis, food pantries are struggling with ways to raise money and perform their missions.  In many towns, they’ve cut hours to reduce public contact. The Gilmanton Community Church’s food pantry, which used to open several hours two days a week, has switched to pickup by appointment only.

The Lakes Region Food Pantry and Thrift Shop in Moultonborough closed its building March 16, and is now mailing vouchers for new and current clients to purchase fresh foods at Hannaford in Meredith and E.M. Health in Center Harbor.  “People are sending me thank you notes, they’re so happy,” said pantry director Amy Norton. She said requests have increased from newcomers and former customers who haven’t used the pantry in a while. “A lot of people don’t want to come get the food. A lot of people who use pantries have underlying health conditions.”

Lynn Tonkin, Laconia Area Center Director of Belmont-Merrimack Community Action Program, said there’s been a 50 percent or higher increase in phone inquiries from people who are worried about having enough to eat, as coronavirus shutdowns spike unemployment around the state.  Many aren’t on food stamps because they were working, and now want to come to the Community Action Food Pantry on Belmont Road in Laconia for monthly pickup of USDA foods, and small weekly bags of free groceries purchased by CAP.

Donations of food have virtually disappeared, Tonkin said.  Only two Shaw’s bags of groceries were dropped off in the last three weeks. Since September, the CAP pantry has relied on $6,000 raised by the Laconia Rod and Gun Club to purchase groceries to fill the bags. Money doesn’t come from state or federal sources. “If you’re a food pantry, it’s up to you to stock it and raise money for it,” Tonkin said.

Thursday morning, the Christ Life Center food pantry at Lakes Region Vineyard Church in Laconia gave out roughly 90 boxes of food between 9 and 11:45 am, including 14 to Lakes Region Mental Health to deliver to shut-in clients, and 13 for Navigating Recovery to bring to rehab patients sheltered at home. “Not everybody is shut in because of the virus,” said Pastor Dick Au Coin, head of the walk-in pantry started in 1993. “So far there’s been a little bit of an increase” in requests, he said.  “We’re expecting it’s going to explode if this thing goes on.”

The St. Vincent de Paul food pantry is open Monday, 12 -2pm, and Wendesday, 6-8pm.  Donations of non-perishables, such as boxed cereal, canned goods, pasta and sauce, can be dropped off Monday, 8am - 2:30pm and Wednesday 4 - 8pm.  Mail monetary donations to St. Vincent dePaul, P.O. Box 6123, Lakeport, NH 03247. For more information, leave message at 524-5470.

To make a donation to the Christ Life Center food pantry, contact Lakes Region Vineyard Church at lakesregionvineyard.org.

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