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In the basement of St. Stephen's Parish Hall, the shelves of the Tri-Parish Food Pantry are brimming with soup, spaghetti sauce and tuna.

It's the season of giving and the Christmas spirit is alive and well in Middleport.

The Tri-Parish Food Pantry, located on the corner of Park Avenue and Vernon Street in Middleport, is a joint effort of St. Stephen's Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church and the Holy Cross Lutheran Church.

According to Betty Bridge, one of the parish representatives, the Tri-Parish Food Pantry began about eight years ago, when it was discovered that all of the churches were faced with the same dilemma -- transients were asking for money and food, and people in the community were finding it hard to make ends meet.

At first, food was delivered to people's homes, but over the years the number of needy families grew. A more organized solution was needed.

The parish hall basement, which is dry and cool, was chosen for food storage, and the Tri-Parish Food Pantry was officially named.

People hear about the food pantry by word of mouth. Pastors announce the pantry's service at their churches, but being a churchgoer is not a requirement.

The only requirement for receiving help from the food pantry is that the needy person or family must live in the town of Royalton or Hartland.

"Two years ago there were 32 or 33 cards (clients) in the files. Today there are about 60. We have so many more now," Mrs. Bridge said. "Since Fisher-Price left . . . the need has grown and grown."

The majority of people who use the food pantry need just a little boost, Mrs. Bridge said. They are temporarily struggling to make ends meet on a low income, facing the problems of having to buy food and clothes, and pay utility bills and rent, she said.

The demand on the food pantry varies throughout the year. Although people need extra help to get through the holidays, the summer can be surprisingly busy as well.

Children who were receiving the free school lunch are home, and sometimes families need a few extra groceries to feed them.

"Our little help is greatly appreciated by working people," Mrs. Bridge said. "For whatever reason, we are there."

The food pantry is open two days a week, Monday and Thursday, from 10 to 11:30 a.m. People can use their services only twice a month.

Parish ministers oversee the operations, and parish representatives make the volunteer's schedules and keep track of the supplies.

Where does all the food come from?

At this time of year everyone is buying an extra can or two to drop in a collection box at one of the churches. The schools in the area collect nonperishable food, and many elementary classes have a jar full of money that will be donated to the cause. Throughout the year the post office holds a collection, as well as the scouts and church youth groups.

When supplies run low, the word is spread and shelves get restocked.

The pantry can always use complete pancake mix (the kind that you just add water to) and syrup.

Cash donations are also used to buy the things that are needed. Ted Sworts, another volunteer, does the shopping, going from one store to another looking for the best buy.

The food pantry tries to give people a variety of staples, such as cereal, tuna, vegetables, pork and beans, soup, spaghetti sauce and noodles.

"We hope to give fruit, peanut butter and jelly, pancake mix, syrup and one dessert, like brownie mix," Mrs. Bridge said.

"We get some very unusual things," she said of the food that is donated. "We get a lot of refried beans, and odd vegetables like sauerkraut, which you either love or hate." These items are put in a box labeled freebies, and people are encouraged to take one or two.

The food pantry also gives a food voucher worth $5 that can be redeemed for milk, bread, margarine and eggs at the local Wilson Farms.

"It takes a lot of generous people to give in all ways," Mrs. Bridge said.

On a typical day, volunteers like Gwendolyn Hauenstein and Mabel Hass from the Senior Center wait for clients to arrive. Usually 10 or 12 people come, and are given $60 in vouchers and much more in bags of groceries per day.

The holidays are a special time and all the clients receive a complete Christmas dinner courtesy of the Elks Lodge 41 of Lockport.

Baskets are filled with all the fixings for a turkey dinner, including a 12- to 14-pound turkey, a bag of potatoes, fruit cocktail, vegetable, a frozen pumpkin pie and candy canes.

Tom Bennett of the Elks Lodge recalled visiting the pantry a few years ago. "I was impressed," he said, "They were small but covered a lot of territory."

At that time the Elks brought about 20 dinners. This year they will arrive with 40 dinners, as well as $500 for the food pantry.

Mrs. Bridge explained that although its official name is the Tri-Parish Food Pantry, other churches, such as the First Universalist Church, have also provided food and support.

The other parish representatives are Jane Brooks and Ted Sworts.

It takes a community with a big heart to keep a food pantry running successfully. More than 30 volunteers give their time, others give their money, and many people give their food.

As Mrs. Bridge said, "People always come through."