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Hawthorne's neophyte food pantry unfazed by pandemic

Martha's Pantry has taken over the parish hall at St. Clement's, Hawthorne. LINDA HEEREMA PHOTO
Nina Nicholson
Martha's Pantry has taken over the parish hall at St. Clement's, Hawthorne. LINDA HEEREMA PHOTO

When Martha’s Pantry first opened at St. Clement’s, Hawthorne in November 2019, nobody came.

“We advertised all around town – the libraries, the storefronts, Facebook – but no one showed up. That was kind of sad,” said Linda Heerema, the parishioner who manages Martha’s Pantry.

“However, the second week we opened we had five families and it continued to grow after that. Last week, we fed over 100 people.”

The original pantry consisted of three sets of plastic shelves, purchased from Home Depot and assembled in St. Clement’s basement by the Rev. Deacon Erik Soldwedel, who is serving at St. Clement's part-time as interim clergy

During the pantry’s brief interval before the COVID-19 pandemic, clients would come downstairs into the basement and “shop” using points allotted based on the size of their household – a system Heerema picked up when she visited the food pantry run by St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Pompton Lakes to “learn the ropes.”

“As we were growing,” Heerema said, “we ended up with ten sets of shelves. We took up quite a bit of the one area in the basement. And then with the pandemic, and we started receiving so many donations, we took over the whole parish hall. It looks like the stock room at ShopRite.”

In mid-March, in response to the pandemic, Martha’s pantry replaced the point system and the in-person shopping with pre-packaged bags and outdoor pickups.

“We make the clients stay in the vehicles – just pop the trunk or open the window or the rear door or whatever – then we put the groceries in. We don't allow them to get out of their cars,” said Heerema.

“Our volunteers all wear masks,” she continued. “We have hand sanitizer, we're all six feet apart from each other – we're very respectful of our distances when we pass each other in the hallway carrying all these bags.

“We started with four volunteers – now we have nine, and they're extremely faithful. We work like a well-oiled machine.”

Pre-pandemic, food pantry clients had to show proof of need, such as receiving SNAP benefits. Now, anyone who asks for food receives it.

Named in honor of a long line of St. Clement’s parishioners who were either literally named Martha or whose service was reminiscent of the biblical Martha, Martha’s Pantry is open the first and third Saturday of the month from 10 AM until noon. Every time they’re open, they give out pre-packaged bags of non-perishable groceries. Diapers, baby food, toiletries and pet food are also available to those who need them.

The third Saturday of the month is “Laundry Day” when they give out laundry detergent.

“And if people say they need it without scent, we give it without scent,” said Soldwedel. The pantry also receives donations of gluten-free items and shelf-stable almond milk which they give to those who need them.

Martha’s Pantry does not work with a food bank but receives all its food and other items through donations.

“What that’s done,” said Soldwedel, “is it's led many people in the town to make donations. I constantly get calls – ‘Are you going to be there?’ – and we get food delivered.

“One of the parishioners at All Saints in Glen Rock” – the parish that sponsored Soldwedel for ordination – “said, ‘I want to do something to help Martha's Pantry.’ So, she contacted all her neighbors. Now every two weeks they show up with anywhere between 30 and 60 bags of donations.

“Parishioners make cash donations – there've been people who have decided not only to pledge to the church but to pledge to Martha’s Pantry at the same time.

“The Reformed Church next door is now collecting for Martha's Pantry, so it's become a focal point for the faith community in Hawthorne.”

Heerema said that some donations arrive via Amazon, FedEx, or US Mail.

“I believe St. James in Montclair has donated to us – a nice, sizable donation – through Amazon.

“Erik lives right next door [to St. Clement’s] so he keeps his eye out for all the packages that arrive and brings them indoors.”

Soldwedel related the story of a client early in the pandemic who later became a donor. The sole provider for a family of four, “He was laid off from his job and had put in for his unemployment, and he said, ‘Can I have something?’ I said, ‘You can come today.’ That was on a Tuesday – he got three bags and then he came the following Saturday.

“He recently got hired back and he came by with a donation for the food pantry.”

Soldwedel says he is very impressed with what St. Clement’s has done. “The most beautiful thing about it is it's not clergy-dependent – laity have taken this on as their project. For the first time in 30 years, this congregation has a hands-on outreach that is truly lay-led, lay-formed.”

The Diocese of Newark has set up online giving to support the diocese’s food pantries. Simply visit and go to Area of Greatest Need: Food Pantries (second item from the top). Donations made from Aug. 5 through Aug. 18, 2020 will go to Martha's Pantry at St. Clement's, Hawthorne.