REGIONAL – The food pantry at the First Parish Church in Newbury needs a new, permanent home.
The pantry that started in a small library of the church five and a half years ago has grown to serve 250 to 300 individuals and families every Friday.
“It’s like we spent the first four years practicing” how to serve needy people, said Jane Merrow, who heads the pantry, “Then the Pandemic hit.”
Suddenly the demand for food far outstripped what the small group of volunteers at the church had ever handled before. Merrow and her crew solicited food donations from the Boston Food Bank, Nourishing North Shore, Tendercrop Farm, Shaw’s and smaller providers including Pigs Could Fly and Middle Street Foods.
First Parish describes itself as “a small church with a big difference in that everyone gets a chance to practice ministry here. And we do mean everyone. This small congregation is blessed with hard working Members and Friends, who work tirelessly on behalf of First Parish missions.”
Through the hard work of a small group, led by Merrow and friends, large quantities of food, including meats and dairy and baked goods, began to pour in. Money was donated to buy supplies like toilet paper and coffee. The ranks of the volunteers swelled to 75 every Friday from a pool of about 125.
But where could they put it all? Where could they find space for the volunteers to fill the orders?
There was only one place. The church, which traces its origins to 1635 when the first settlers landed here, was not using its beautiful sanctuary. Covid-19 had forced the church to shut down in-person services and go remote.
So, the empty wooden pews, choir room and wall space of the sanctuary became the shelves and cold storage for the food and supplies. With Bibles and the hymnals in the racks behind the pews there are now jars of peanut butter, pies and boxes of pasta, particularly Mac and Cheese. There is a gluten free pew and several pews dedicated to pet foods and supplies.
Brown bags are stored in the choir room. The yard outside has long tables of filled bags ready for delivery. White coolers stand in front of the altar with ice cream and other frozen foods. Three large freezers for perishables line the wall in front of the sanctuary.
Operations are run from one desk in the rear of the sanctuary, where a computer prints orders from people in need. In addition to the on-line orders, 17 volunteers call 120 people each week to make sure they are well and to help them order their food for the week.
Merrow, a retired nurse and deacon at First Parish, works all week with a small crew to inventory what foods and supplies are needed. She also solicits donations and applies for grants. It costs about $3,500 a week to buy products that are not donated.
On Friday mornings, the volunteers move like they are choreographed around the sanctuary, stuffing brown paper bags with foods and supplies. The church organist often comes to practice and entertain the volunteers.
It takes about 300 volunteer hours each week to fill the bags. “No one gets paid here,” Merrow said.
The volunteers drive their own cars, using gas they paid for, to place the bags outside for recipients in Newbury, Newburyport, Ipswich, Rowley, Salisbury and West Newbury. They leave the food and supplies outside for fear of infecting those who are most vulnerable.
About 60 percent of the bags are delivered. In the afternoon, families drive to the church to pick up their orders in person.
Now that the Pandemic seems to be winding down, the church and its new minister, Rev. Ray Henderson, want the sanctuary back for in-person services. So, what happens to the food pantry?
On Sunday, June 6, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., the pantry leadership will answer that question, unveiling plans to create a permanent home. There will be snacks and refreshments and tours led by the pantry’s volunteers.
“Please join us as we celebrate and grow the next chapter for the Newbury Food Pantry!” the invitation reads. “This is a great opportunity to connect with our volunteers and learn how the Capital Campaign’s efforts will benefit your community.”
The plan comes in two steps. After delivering meals on the previous Friday, the pantry will move temporarily during the weekend of June 26 and 27 to a donated space on Hanover Street in Newbury.
It will stay there only long enough to build a 40-foot by 40-foot metal building beside the parking lot behind the church.
Merrow is leading the effort to raise $300,000 for the building and its operations. “We will do it. We have to do it,” she said with a confidence and determination that makes one feel, while standing below the sanctuary’s stained-glass windows, that she may have God’s ear.
“During the pandemic, it is amazing how generous people have been,” she said. “People like to give. It makes you feel good.”