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These older women are feeding Philadelphians in poverty. What happens when they’re gone?

Alfred Lubrano, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Senior Living Features

PHILADELPHIA -- Gloria White, 74, can’t remember precisely how long she’s been volunteering at the food pantry at the Second Antioch Baptist Church in West Philadelphia.

“Thirty, maybe 37 years,” said White, a retired investigator for the Consumer Product Safety Commission. “It’s a calling.” White, who now lives in Townsend, Del., commutes each week to the pantry, which she helps run. She grew up three doors down from the church and inherited her mother’s belief that a good person helps others through difficult times.

The same problems persist decades later, pushing White and countless other older adults like her to work for free in small church pantries throughout the area.

A little-known truth of Philadelphia poverty is that many low-income residents here are kept alive by a spirited corps of aging do-gooders — mostly women — propelled by religious belief and an inability to abide suffering.

“These kindhearted, dear elderly ladies are the backbones of community-based food pantries,” said Jeremy Montgomery, president and CEO of Philly House, the 145-year-old North Philadelphia charity that feeds and serves people experiencing homelessness. “They keep things going for those in poverty.”

And, Montgomery added, their efforts are in demand more than ever these days, as food needs multiply.

In December 2022, there were 480,809 Philadelphia residents receiving SNAP benefits (formerly called food stamps, now the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), according to Katie Milholin, director of policy and education for the Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. Last month, the number increased to 493,734. Overall, Pennsylvania now has a record 2 million people receiving SNAP benefits, up from around 1.9 million last year, she said.

Rising costs of housing, child-care, and food exacerbate need, Milholin said. “We need federal programs like SNAP to remain strong,” she added. “But the people in the small food pantries are absolutely essential to feeding Philadelphia.”

At Share Food Program, the food distribution nonprofit that, along with Philabundance, supplies much of the food distributed to pantries, the need has increased around 22% over last year, according to executive director George Matysik.

All hands are required to pitch in he said, adding, “These church ladies have been absolutely foundational to how we’ve responded to hunger relief over the past 40 years. We continue to build on their shoulders.”

Some worry that once the older group goes, not enough people will step up to fill the void.

 

“Most of the people at our pantry meetings are in their 70s,” White said.

Michelle Nock, who runs the Antioch pantry with White, agrees, though she’s a relatively young 56. Nock said, “We’re getting some younger people to help. But they’re not as consistent as our older people.”

It’s not that individuals under 70 care less, said Suzan Neiger Gould, executive director of Manna on Main Street, an antihunger nonprofit serving Montgomery County. “But the older women have more time on their hands” because they’re no longer working.

Gould added that the Philadelphia area, which is served by 500 to 900 pantries (depending on the estimate), has many large organizations like hers with paid staff that dwarf church pantries and distribute food and offer various services, such as emergency financial aid.

“Still, a lot of communities not served by larger pantries depend on these older women,” she said.

And as long as need exists, people like 77-year-old Pastor Trude Stokes will be there.

“We all follow the commands of Jesus,” said Stokes, who disperses bags of food to those who want them at Faithful Deliverance Tabernacle Inc., in North Philadelphia. “He said in the Bible , “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

“We love the Lord. So we ask people, ‘Have you eaten? Are you hungry?’

“We do the work. And we’re proud of what we do.”


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