DEVENS -- Volunteers and leaders of Loaves & Fishes food pantry at 234 Barnum Road on Devens had a message to deliver to Harvard officials on hand for a briefing and tour -- we're here to serve you, too.
Harvard groups and residents are generous donors to the pantry, but Loaves & Fishes also serves Harvard residents, said Loaves & Fishes Executive Director Patty Stern. Stern met with Harvard Town Administrator Tim Bragan, Harvard Police Chief Edward Denmark and Harvard Council on Aging Outreach Coordinator Maria Holland in hopes of closing gaps in services and preventing duplicative services among well-meaning but competing community efforts to serve the needy in the pantry's primary service territory.
The threesome was given a briefing on counseling services offered and clothing and food available to clients of the pantry. Some pantries provide pre-packaged groceries, but that's not the case at Loaves & Fishes. Clients from the pantry's service area -- Ayer, Devens, Groton, Harvard, Littleton and Shirley -- "get to shop, just like you and I do at the grocery store," said Stern. "We think that's a better model."
Beyond dispensing food, the pantry also meets with its clients to help those in need in a variety of ways: health, employment, veterans services, substance abuse, physical abuse -- whatever the need is, the pantry continues to "advocate for change into self-reliance and get them through their tough time," said Stern.
But Stern said that's not necessary -- the services are meant for all who can prove residency within one of the six serviced communities. Stern appealed to Holland to promote the pantry to Harvard seniors in need.
Eighty-three percent of families served, averaging four members in a household, earn less than $25,000. "Can you imagine living on that with a family of four?" Stern asked her guests. "Some of our families are as large as eight!"
In the face of a failing economy, Stern said 31 percent of recipients report that they are employed in one manner or another, either full or part time. Many are under-employed.
Thirty-four percent of recipients are retired or disabled. "What a disservice," Stern said with a sigh. "The numbers are crazy. But all in all, 91 percent of our clients are trying."
Some may be taking advantage of the pantry. "I'd be lying to you if I felt there wasn't some percentage, but most truly, truly need us," assured Stern.
The biggest barrier to entry? "Courage to step through the door," said Stern. She relayed her own story of losing her prior job after 25 years with the firm, having a cancer diagnosis for her husband, and her former reliance on fuel assistance and MassHealth coverage. Admitting you need the help, "that's a very difficult thing to do."
Visitors can frequent twice monthly, receiving approximately $400 worth of groceries. "That helps stretch their money for other expenses," like medicine, child care, rent, heating fuel and more, said Stern.
Clients meet with stewards who check on other client needs, like qualification for food stamps, special senior needs, job listings or unemployment assistance, and encouragement to begin networking and volunteering. Though volunteers may be neighbors to clients, there's a strict confidentiality policy to preserve the dignity of the clients served.
"It can be hard for Harvard residents who are used to being donors," said client advocate Theresa Wilson.
She relayed the story of a Harvard man who needed the help but struggled for nearly an hour to enter the pantry. "It's really, really hard but he had the courage to come in here and help himself." While the man works through his present circumstances, Wilson said "in the meantime, we're going to put groceries in his cupboard."
There are regular events to benefit children in needy households, including the backpack program, which provided students with age-appropriate back-to-school supplies and quality backpacks to "have a start just like the other kids in class," said Wilson. Last year, 400 backpacks were loaded and given to needy children. There's also special Christmas programming for children, and almost 400 families benefit from special Thanksgiving and Christmas meal packages.
The main emphasis remains food, with 440,000 pounds of food passing through the pantry each year (8,000 pounds a week). In 2007 the pantry served 300 to 350 families. That's when need started to climb. The figures are up 59 percent in 2011. "We're leveling off a bit, I'm happy to say," said Stern.
As far as any economic recovery, Stern predicted, "I think we'll be the last to see it. Our goal is to close our door. That's not going to happen."
Like Loaves & Fishes on Facebook, visit www.loavesfishespantry.org, or call them at 978-772-4627. The pantry is open on the second Tuesday evening of the month and first and third Saturdays each month.