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Ransomville food pantry expands its mission to meet rising demand

RANSOMVILLE – Volunteers were excited five years ago when they opened a food pantry in a Ransomville church basement and 21 families turned up for help.

“We thought this was really good,” recalled Joanne Whitney, one of the volunteers. “I remember thinking we didn’t realize we had this much need in our community.”

Today, more than 200 families – more than 400 registered clients – seek help monthly at what has evolved into the Care-n-Share Food Pantry at 3628 Ransomville Road.

And the list is still growing, particularly through the winter months.

“January, February and March are our lean times,” said Whitney, current pantry administrator. “We have our greatest need after Christmas. People think of us during the holidays, but then they kind of forget about us.”

The pantry started in the basement of the Ransomville Free Methodist Church and Whitney said that Rev. William Lowery Jr. was “the driving force.”

Lowery, pastor since 2002, recalled that the pantry was formed through discussions of needs in the area with Whitney, Mary Martinez of the Wilson School District, Deb Parker of Knead the Dough and Tony Collard of Youngstown.

What started as a church food pantry for Ransomville residents evolved into “a community pantry that could stand on its own,” Lowery said. “We formed Intercommunity Services Inc., with 501(c)(3) status, and it now operates the Care-n-Share Food Pantry.

“We go through 6,000 pounds of food a month and this has grown through word of mouth, no advertising,” Lowery noted. “The pantry moved out of the church because we had no more space to give.”

When the group outgrew its 400 square feet of church space, it went looking for a larger spot. The pantry moved into a 1,600-square-foot storefront last summer, in what was once the Porter Country Mart, and most recently, a computer refurbishing and repair business.

Doug Adamson, the owner of the Porter Center, moved out to make way for the food pantry.

He had just finished remodeling the spot the food pantry now occupies. He leased the spot for his computer shop, but a side business – a return center for empty bottles and cans – was gaining popularity and he needed more space, too.

“He’s a great neighbor,” Whitney said. “We never could have afforded to do this remodeling ourselves. Doug said, ‘Why don’t I just move my business over and you take this place?’ And, it’s smaller – we didn’t need that much space – so the rent is less here for us.”

“It worked out better for both of us,” Adamson said. “It’s all good.”

The pantry serves residents of this small hamlet, as well as the rest of the Town of Porter, Town of Lewiston, Youngstown and parts of Wilson. Wilson has its own food pantry, but those residents who had grown comfortable over the years visiting the Ransomville spot when Wilson was without a pantry were given a choice, Whitney explained.

Carol Palumbo, agency services director for the Food Bank of Western New York, said, “Care-n-Share provides nearly 4,200 meals per month now – they filled a real void in the area.”

According to Food Bank statistics, food pantry visits rose 13 percent in Niagara County in 2014-15.

Whitney said her clients are “pretty evenly split between families and senior citizens. There are more seniors than I ever thought we had here (in town).”

She said a number of her patrons are employed through the better-weather months and turn up at the pantry when they are laid off for the winter.

“And they won’t come in here during the summer, even if they are entitled to, while they are working,” she said. “There is a lot of pride in this area. And, a lot of the seniors won’t take everything they’re entitled to, either. They’ll say, ‘Leave it for someone else.’ ”

Those who qualify are permitted to visit the pantry once a month, “but if an emergency comes up, they can come a second time,” Whitney said. “We’d never turn anyone away.”

There are 15 seniors who cannot get to this pantry, and volunteers deliver their goods to them.

“Those people break your heart,” Whitney said. “I have one who broke her hip and has no family. I have another sick with cancer. I have one in a wheelchair and I take my 7-year-old daughter, Morgan, with me. This woman has Morgan climb up in her lap so she can read my daughter a book. These people enjoy the companionship as much as the food. And they cry when you bring them their food.”

Whitney said both of her daughters, Morgan, and Anna, 20, “practically live at the pantry,” chipping in wherever they are needed. Whitney, herself, works two jobs – and worked an additional holiday job – while devoting at least 20 hours of volunteer work a week at the pantry.

“We have about 15 dedicated volunteers and we could use about 30,” she said. “We need volunteers to unload trucks, stock shelves, clean, write thank-you notes and help the clients when they come in, because there’s a lot of paperwork to be done.

“If someone wants to volunteer even one day a month, for just a couple of hours, that’s wonderful,” she said.

One of her dedicated volunteers is Robert Montgomery. He started out as a client and now even his four teenagers are regular volunteers.

“They need to learn that there’s more to it than standing with your hand out,” he said of his children’s service.

He said the younger help was particularly crucial when the pantry was located in the church basement and everything had to be moved from floor to floor.

“Things are definitely different than they were a few years ago (at the church),” he said. “You’d see a few waiting there, but now we get lines out the door and into the parking lot here. But, we also get them through here twice as fast now. This is a lot more convenient.”

Whitney said the pantry gets its food donations from a variety of sources, including the Food Bank of Western New York, which allows it to purchase food at extremely low cost.

While donations of non-perishables are appreciated, Lowery stressed that, “If you really want to make a difference in someone’s life and impact those in need – cash donations are best. We can buy four times the amount of food through the Food Bank, so you get a lot more bang for your buck. Cash donations are the best way for us to help others.”

One of the food pantry’s other board members, Lori Caso, added, “We just received a donation of $5, for example, and that means a lot more than just $5 when we’re purchasing food through the Food Bank.”

Caso was able to help procure a grant for an irrigation system last year for the pantry’s community garden located behind the Free Methodist Church.

“We are in the heart of farm country and I think that community garden, which helps us provide fresh fruit and vegetables to the food pantry, really makes us unique,” she said.

Whitney said Care-n-Share also has struck up a great relationship with local farmers to help supply produce.

“We have quite a few local farmers who have been absolutely wonderful,” she said. “Even people who have little gardens and have extra bring us things. We also have a man who works at General Mills and buys cereal at a reduced price for us, and another who brings us cookies.

“CVS, Dollar General and Rite Aid also give us things they are taking off of their shelves,” she added. “And, Tops in Lewiston gives us day-old bread every day.”

“It’s really a community effort,” said Whitney. “All of the churches in the area help us, too.”

The pantry has two refrigerators and two freezers, so volunteers are able to store and distribute meat and dairy products. They have stocked their shelves according to food groups, with canned fruits, vegetables and bags and boxes of grain items.

Marylou Borowiak, president and chief executive officer of the Food Bank, said, “Thanks to the generosity of the Western New York community, the Food Bank of Western New York was able to assist many families in need during the holidays.

“Unfortunately, the need does not stop with the end of the holiday season,” she added. “Hunger is 365 days a year, and as winter settles in, many of the 165,000 individuals we serve are now faced with the choice of heating their homes or purchasing nutritious food. The Food Bank of Western New York relies on community support year-round as we work to fight hunger one day at a time.”

The pantry is open year-round, 5:30 to 8 p.m. Thursdays and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays. To donate food, call Sue Wendt at 622-2764 and to volunteer, call Whitney at 940-0069. Monetary donations may be sent to Care-n-Share Food Pantry, P.O. Box 401, Ransomville, NY 14131.