By Jim Ignasher
It may be hard for some to imagine that there are those in Smithfield who don’t get enough to eat, yet it’s true. This is evidenced by the number of people who come seeking assistance from local churches as well as the town of Smithfield’s Department of Human Services.
Those who volunteer at the food pantries can relate heartbreaking stories of people who never thought they would find themselves in a situation where they would have to ask for help, but it can happen to anybody. The sudden loss of a job, the death of a spouse, or a serious illness, can wipe out savings and put families in dire situations.
Smithfield’s Department of Human Services Director Karen Armstrong has been administrating the day to day operations of the town-run food pantry for the last six years. During her tenure she’s assisted countless residents who’ve come to her seeking assistance.
The pantry currently serves about eight to ten families a month, as well as several single adults. Yet she and her staff, some of whom are volunteers, don’t just supply groceries. Through a network of lay-people and social-service organizations they also assist those in need of clothing, furniture, and certain special requests.
Ms. Armstrong also helps those who qualify to register with the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, (SNAP).
The pantry receives support from local corporate and private benefactors. On the corporate side are companies such as Stop & Shop, FGX, and Fidelity Investments, Martone Realty, Rubius Therapeutics, and Rally Point. On the private side are concerned citizens, some of whom were once in need themselves, and now want to give back to help others. Local politicians have also been instrumental in obtaining grants for the pantry.
The pantry also supports itself with fundraisers such as the bowling tournament that was held recently on October 25th. Money raised from that event will go towards heating assistance.
The Smithfield Food Pantry is located at the town’s senior center in Deerfield Park, and is open to any town resident. The hours are 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday thru Friday.
Among the churches in Smithfield that operate food pantries, the largest is the St. Vincent DePaul Society Food Pantry located in a building behind St. Philip’s Church in Greenville. Established in 1994, this pantry is now celebrating its 25th year of operation, and according Jim Carroll, one of the charter members, the need has steadily risen over the years. As an example he relates that in September of this year the organization served 311 households, which only a few years ago would have been representative of an entire year! He added that demand always increases in the autumn when the weather cools and heat and back-to-school bills come due thereby straining food budgets, and that’s not to mention the Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons.
In 2018, the pantry gave out 400,000 pounds of food, with an additional 5,000 pounds of vegetables grown on “God’s Little Acre” which is a plot of land behind St. Philip’s School on which vegetables are grown over the summer.
The pantry is staffed by nearly 70 volunteers, with an additional number that tend to the vegetable garden during the growing season. Support also comes from many local businesses including Jaswell’s Farm, Stop & Shop, Target, Panera Bread, Such-a-Bagel, BJ’s Wholesale in Johnston, and Brigidos IGA in North Scituate.
Support also comes from private monetary donations, of which 97 cents of every dollar goes towards buying food or helping clients with certain financial needs. Jim credits St. Phillip’s Pastor Father Francis Santilli with making this possible, for “Father Frank” finances the upkeep and utilities for the building, except for the phone. “Everyone here is a volunteer,” Jim explained, “There are no salaries paid.”
The St. Vincent DePaul Food Pantry is open on Wednesdays, 1-3 p.m., and Saturdays, 9-10:30 a.m.
St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Greenville doesn’t operate a food pantry, but does collect food donations which are passed on to the Rhode Island Food Bank.
The church also accepts pet care items which are then brought to local animal shelters, and donations of toiletries, new greeting cards, and warm socks, which are forwarded to other organizations that help those in need.
St. Thomas also has several community outreach ministries which include helping youths attend summer camp, volunteering at food ministries in Providence, sponsoring twelve-step programs, and care-giver and bereavement support groups.
The Greenville Baptist Church operates a thrift shop on its property that carries household and clothing items, and everyone is welcome.
On the Georgiaville/Esmond side of town is the St. Michael’s Social Justice Food Closet which presently serves between fifteen to twenty families per month, with a total of forty families enrolled in their program. In recent years they’ve seen an increase in elderly clients. The pantry is supported by parishioners and private donations, and is open to Smithfield residents.
The pantry is open once a month, typically on the second Saturday, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 12 Noon.
The churches as well as the town each have a Christmas program designed to distribute gifts. This is typically done through the submission of “wish cards” which might request a toy for a small child or clothing items for adolescents. The cards are then distributed to parishioners who want to help, or in the case of the town food pantry, to workers and other volunteers, who then purchase the desired gifts. The wrapped presents are then passed on to the recipients who have no idea who their benefactor is. It’s an act of kindness that can mean a lot to a struggling family, or to a kid who still believes in Santa Claus.
Additionally, each has a holiday food basket program where specially prepared Thanksgiving and Christmas grocery baskets are delivered to specified homes.
Yet we should be aware that while helping and giving to others during the months of Thanksgiving and Christmas is important, the need for assistance doesn’t end come January. Smithfield’s food pantries operate all year long, and can only exist as long as there are those willing to support them in the form of non-perishable food items, gift cards and monetary donations, or by volunteering their time.
Should you wish to help, please donate. No amount is too small, and every bit helps. The recipients of your generosity will be extremely grateful, and one could even be your neighbor.