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Paterson food pantry meets multiple needs while serving twice as many

Clients line up outside the food pantry at St. Paul's, Paterson. ERIK SOLDWEDEL PHOTO
Nina Nicholson
Clients line up outside the food pantry at St. Paul's, Paterson. ERIK SOLDWEDEL PHOTO

Before the COVID-19 pandemic the food pantry at St. Paul’s, Paterson served 400 families a month, on average.

This past June they served 933 families.

“You see people come who have never used a food pantry before and they have no idea what to expect,” said the Rev. Deacon Erik Soldwedel, Deacon in Residence at St. Paul’s.

The pandemic was stressful for the volunteers as well.

“When this first hit, we were scared for our lives,” said Kimberly Arias, Manager of the food pantry. Pre-pandemic the food pantry was typically staffed by 8 to 10 volunteers, but due to fear of contracting COVID-19, all but three volunteers stopped coming. Arias, the food pantry’s only paid employee, left her office to work alongside them.

“It wasn’t about titles anymore – it was about getting the job done,” she said.

Thanks to an annual summer AmeriCorps program, the food pantry currently has enough volunteers. “We may need volunteers again in September, though,” said Arias.

The food pantry now requires the wearing of masks and social distancing. If someone arrives without a mask, they will be given one. “St. Mark's quilters guild in Teaneck makes masks for us to give out,” said Soldwedel.

Distributions are now made at the door, not inside the food pantry, and plexiglass shields have been put in place.

St. Paul’s food pantry started in 1970 as a small volunteer effort. In 1990, St. Paul’s launched St. Paul's Community Development Corporation as a separate nonprofit to consolidate its outreach efforts, which in addition to the food pantry had grown to include an Emergency Men's Shelter. During a major renovation in the late 1990s, St. Paul’s created a new, large space for the food pantry in the undercroft. It is open Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 11:30 AM.

The majority of the food pantry’s support comes from the Community Foodbank of NJ. As demand has grown during the pandemic, “They’ve been gracious about giving us extra food,” said Arias.

The Rev. Michelle White of Christ Church, Teaneck put St. Paul’s in touch with the Paramus grocery store Stew Leonard's, which now donates an average of 50 cases of milk to them each month, including non-dairy almond milk. Support has also come from Christ Church, Ridgewood; St. Elizabeth’s, Ridgewood; All Saints’, Glen Rock; and local congregations from other denominations.

St. Paul’s food pantry also coordinates with other Paterson feeding ministries to share surpluses. Their partners include Eva’s Village and the United Presbyterian Church just down the street.

“St. Paul’s food pantry is unique in the sense that it does serve all needs of food – it's just not limited to non-perishables,” said Soldwedel, noting that they do their best to accommodate food allergies, and also distribute toiletries.

The pantry even celebrates birthdays. “If you’re a client and you come and say, ‘It's my child’s birthday,’ you get a full kit for a birthday party,” Soldwedel said. “You get a cake mix, you get frosting, you get filling, you get hats, you get paper cups, paper plates, tablecloth, candles – you name it, it's there.”

Christ Church, Ridgewood makes and donates these “birthday bundles,” which are distributed to clients during the birthday month.

Arias described how one adult client broke down crying when given a birthday bundle for herself.

“She told us, ‘I never thought anyone cared enough about me to give me something for my birthday,’” said Arias.

“We see tons of clients with different situations,” Arias said. “We know most of our clients by name – we like to have that relationship with them.”

As if those offerings weren’t diverse enough, the congregation of St. Paul’s, in cooperation with the food pantry, has started a new ministry called Just Diapers. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, during the same hours the food pantry is open, they distribute diapers, wipes and baby food.

“The CDC and the church have come together during the pandemic to help each other,” said Arias. “They’ve gotten closer as a partnership. It’s a team effort.”

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 July 8 through July 21, 2020 will go to St. Paul's food pantry.