When the COVID-19 pandemic forced other area food pantries to hit pause, the food pantry at St. Agnes’, Little Falls stepped up.
For four months, from mid-March until mid-July, theirs was the only area food pantry able to continue operations. Usually open on the first and third Saturdays of the month, during that four-month interval St. Agnes’ opened its food pantry every Saturday and distributed more than 7,500 bags of groceries, according to Bob Dombrowski, who co-manages the food pantry along with Pat Keating.
Around 150 to 175 vehicles would show up every Saturday for a bag of groceries to be placed in the trunk or back seat. They also made home deliveries to senior citizens and provided bags to be delivered to those recovering at home from COVID-19.
Like many food ministries in the diocese, they have stopped verifying need for assistance, and now give food to everyone who asks.
The pantries that couldn’t operate during that period donated all their food to St. Agnes’, which helped augment their usual supplies. Dombrowski also appealed to the mayors of three Passaic Valley Region towns – Little Falls, Totowa and Woodland Park – who blasted out requests for community donations.
St. Agnes’ food pantry was started in July 2012 by the Rev. Deacon Deborah Drake during her service there. Pondering the question “What is God calling us to do?” drew attention to the people who would come to St. Agnes’ every so often in need of food. The church started by giving them gift cards, then bags of groceries. Eventually Drake, who had experience at the food pantry at St. Peter’s, Clifton, decided to open a food pantry at St. Agnes’ supplied by volunteer donations.
“Once people heard about it, they started coming,” Drake said.
A drop box was placed in front of the church for food donations. Area schools started having food drives for them, and the library collected food donations in lieu of late fines. Other local faith-based organizations made donations.
St. Agnes’ food pantry was able to expand after it qualified for a partnership with the Community Foodbank of New Jersey, where Drake, Dombrowski and Keating received formal training in food pantry operations.
They also formed a partnership with Table to Table, a food rescue program that collects food that would otherwise be discarded and distributes it to organizations serving the hungry. Table to Table’s only requirement is that St. Agnes’ provide the volunteers to unload the truck, which delivers food the day before their food pantry is open.
The pantry also has received grants from the Passaic County commissioners and the USDA.
Because Drake was involved in animal rescue, St. Agnes’ food pantry began giving out cat and dog food as well.
“If people can’t feed themselves, they aren’t going to be able to feed their pets,” she said.
The food pantry also distributes toilet paper and diapers.
Dombrowski recalls a recent and particularly memorable donation of pet food: a local animal activist called and told him to expect a large delivery from Chewy.com, the online pet supply retailer. Soon after, over the course of three days, UPS delivered four pallets of pet food.
Like Drake, Dombrowski’s service at St. Agnes’ food pantry is shaped by his personal experience. In his case, it was not that long ago that he needed to turn to food pantries himself.
“Six years ago, I was the sole caretaker for my mother, who had dementia,” he recalled. In need of food that Thanksgiving, he turned first to the Roman Catholic church where he’d grown up, but they had nothing for him.
“I’d been voting at St. Agnes’ since I was 18, so I went there,” he said.
A volunteer took his information and he went home, not expecting much. He was stunned when just an hour later, the makings of a full Thanksgiving dinner were delivered to his house.
“After that, I went back to St. Agnes’ and volunteered,” he said. Now he serves on the vestry and is also responsible for Buildings & Grounds.
Having once needed food assistance himself, Dombrowski is especially sensitive to the needs of those who come to St. Agnes’ food pantry. For example, he’s keenly aware that some of their clients only have microwaves and hot plates with which to cook.
“What are they going to do if we give them an uncooked turkey? They’re walking away feeling worse about their life, when they’re supposed to walk away feeling satisfied,” he said. He makes sure these clients receive pre-cooked meats.
Although other local food pantries are now operating again, Dombrowski still has concerns.
“Things are actually getting worse [for food pantry clients] because bills are coming due,” he said. “We have to be very thrifty with our spending. Right now, we’re good until October.”
The Diocese of Newark has set up online giving to support the diocese’s food pantries. Simply visit e-giving.dioceseofnewark.org and go to Bishop's Discretionary Fund / Area of Greatest Need: Food Pantries. Donations made from Sept. 9 through Sept. 22, 2020 will go to the Food Pantry at St. Agnes’, Little Falls. You can also donate to St. Agnes' Food Pantry through their PayPal account.