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Food pantry fills a need for the hungry in Montoursville

PHOTO PROVIDED Since September, workers for the Montoursville-based Harvest of Hope have been providing food for certain students in the Montoursville Area School District as well as food for local Senior Citizens. Every month, over 150 volunteers help collect, sort, pack and deliver food all around the community.

More than two years ago, a Montoursville-based food pantry, Harvest of Hope, was a dream in the hearts of three people who sat at a small round table and “began the vision.”

Today, it is a reality. It boasts more than 150 volunteers from different churches and community members who provide food for senior citizens and area students.

Harvest of Hope began in the summer of 2016 when the now-former Associate Pastor Rusty Wolfinger, of the Faith United Methodist Church, asked church members, Sharon Atherholt and Jane Zimmerer to head up the program.

The three of them sat at the small round table and began working on grant applications and come up with the physical plans to house the food pantry. What was at one time the preschool wing of the church was transformed.

“We began to tear down walls, paint and put up shelving. We had to put in new heating and electrical (work) and we got an industrial freezer and refrigerator,” Atherton said.

She added, “Everything was donated.”

During July 2017 the church held a “Christmas in July” event with a list of items need for the new pantry. The neccessary material was donated and construction began.

Atherton said during construction, two trees had to be cut down and they in turn were used as shelving in the church.

“We even had someone build us a desk,” she said.

While construction was going on, Atherton and Zimmerer routinely spoke with guidance counselors in the local schools to find out what the needs were.

“You didn’t realize the community needed the program until you began looking at the statistics, so we went in to talk to the schools and we heard about the backpack programs, which was one of the programs we were doing, and Sharon and I were totally blown away with how great the need is in the schools. Teachers were trying to give students food and they needed help,” Zimmerer said. She explained that a child being hungry is “not going to be able to focus or be as productive.”

Backpack lunch

Currently, they have a “backpack program” where they provide a bag of food for 25 students at Loyalsock Elementary School, another 25 students at Lyter Elementary School, 15 students at McCall Middle School and 15 at the Montoursville Area High School.

The food will be given to the school and then distributed by the school’s guidance counselor. Each of the bags of groceries is the student’s backpack or a gym bag to keep their anonymity.

According to Atherton, with a total of 80 students receiving the bags of food for four weeks, Hope of Harvest provides 320 bags of food.

“In February, we will raise that to 400 bags of food,” Atherton said, which means more students will be helped.

Zimmerer said each of the bags given to the students helps supplement the food for the weekend. Atherton explained each of the backpacks contains two proteins such as an envelope of tuna fish, chicken or a can of Vienna sausages or Spam.“We do Spaghetti O’s, spaghetti and meatballs in a can along with ramen noodles and soup. We also do two veggies in a can along with cans and cups of fruit,” Atherton said.

Building school relationship

Since beginning this in September, Atherton said the school system has been enthusiastic about Harvest of Hope.

“The relationship with the schools is very positive,” Atherton said. She said that one guidance counselor in the elementary schools said the kids are excited about Fridays when they come and get the bags.

“When the students come to pick-up their bags in our offices each week, we see smiles, excitement and hear comments like, ‘I’m so glad it is Friday because I get my food bag!’ and ‘Getting my food bag is the best part of my week!’ “ said Alice Weiler, a guidance counselor at Loyalsock Valley Elementary School.

She added, “This food not only offers our students some comfort, security and even a bit of independence, but they feel our care and concern for them as well. Through this truly amazing program we are touching our students’ lives in some very positive ways.”

Atherton said while the Harvest of Hope is headquartered at the Faith United Methodist Church, it has become a community project. Ten churches in Montoursville help provide different foods.

“That was the system we set up. We thought it would be easier to manage that way,” Zimmerer said.

Besides the church members, a number of local community organizations are involved with the endeavor, Atherton said.

Similar program

A similar program in Jersey Shore — the New Love Center Food Pantry — has had positive results. According to the Rev. Kerry Aucker, who works with the New Love Center, the center provides 236 backpacks with food every week and educators are seeing results.

“Teachers tell me there are differences in the ways kids are responding in school,” Aucker said. He said that there is an increase in attendance and the students seem more alert.

Upon hearing about the Harvest of Hope program, he praised it.

“I think it is wonderful and there is such a need in our area,” Aucker said. He added that in Lycoming County one in five children are “food insecure.”

“That means they go home and there may be no food in house,” he said.

With Christmas coming up, Zimmerer said backpacks for the students will be “loaded with twice as much food than what they normally get.”

As for the rest of the community, Atherton said the Harvest of Hope hosts a monthly Fresh Express “program where the food is delivered from the Central PA Food Bank and disbursed to families from our site” every second Thursday of the month from 4 to 6 p.m.

“The elderly will come in for that with carts and sometimes we get in college kids and the newly married,” Atherton said.

As for the future, Atherton said the goal is to expand to being able to provide toiletries, hygiene products and items for babies.

“We want to grow, but to do so at a decent pace,” Atherton said.

For more information about Harvest of Hope, visit www.faithum.net/harvest-of-hope.

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