"Take what you need, bring what you can. Above all, be blessed."
That's the message to anyone who might need a little food to tide them over from the Blessing Box in Orchard Park.
The bad thing about being hungry in an upscale community like Orchard Park – besides being hungry – is that no one thinks hard times have hit the suburbs.
But Michele Pellette knew there are people out there who need help every now and then.
A deacon at Orchard Park Presbyterian Church who volunteers at the Family Justice Center's southtowns satellite, Pellette saw an idea on Pinterest: mini self-serve food pantries in stand-alone honor boxes, where anyone can take out the food they need – often in the middle of the night. They look somewhat like the Little Free Libraries that have popped up in Buffalo and around the country.
"I thought to myself, I want to do that," she said.
She talked to her pastor, the Rev. Richard Young, and Mary Travers Murphy, executive director of the Family Justice Center. The center, which is open two days a week, is on the grounds of the Buffalo Street church, and has a food pantry for its clients.
"We were a little taken aback by the incredible need," Murphy said.
Pellette was worried about the days the center was not open. If there was such a need among the center's clients, she thought that showed a greater need in the larger community.
Young had no problem with the idea, and Pellette took it to the church Session – its governing body – where there were a number of questions about the need for the box, where the food would come from and what to do if the food was stolen.
"I'll get more food," she said. "Who's going to take a box of mac and cheese if they don’t need it?"
Her neighbor made a box with glass, and the blue Blessing Box was erected at the driveway in front of the church nearly two years ago. Today, church members are proud of the box and support it, she said.
She said she gets excited when she sees the food is gone, which seems to happen more often in recent months.
"A lot of people are embarrassed, and they do it at night," she said. "I don’t know whether these people live out of their cars, or are homeless or just don’t have enough food."
But she had not witnessed anyone take food, until recently, when she was at the church and saw a woman pull up to the box and take a few canned goods.
The woman looked at Pellette. "If it wasn’t for this Blessing Box, I would starve," she said.
"I started crying, she started crying," Pellette said.
Besides pasta, macaroni and cheese and other non-perishables, the box also has dog and cat food, because if the family is low on food, the animals may be too, she said. There might be laundry detergent, and a note inviting the visitor to Sunday services. Some items are kept inside the church door during the cold months to keep them from freezing.
"We didn’t know anything. We didn't know if we were going to get food," Pellette said. "It was just a leap of faith."
The donations come in from church members and her friends and acquaintances, sometimes in the nick of time. And since the box started two years ago, they have learned that with children out of school for the summer, there is more of a need for food.
One of Pellette's friends, Diane Beatty, started a Blessing Box just inside the door to the First United Methodist Church on Main Street in Springville in January. Food there is available 24 hours a day.
"We're filling it all the time,"Beatty said. "It's very needed in Springville."
"I think everybody wants to help, but I don't think they know what to do," Pellette said. "If this could spread, we could help more people who are embarrassed to ask for help."