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Food Chain 

Forging community connections at an Ohio Valley food pantry

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It's unseasonably warm this late fall Sunday afternoon, but that doesn't stop them from lining up early, choking the sidewalk in front of the Coraopolis storefront at Fifth and Mill. They are young and old, black and white and brown, speaking a Rosetta Stone of languages. Their clothes are worn and tattered. Some are carrying babies.

They stand patiently outside a former drug store transformed by need into a community office, makeshift chapel and all-purpose room. Today that space is being used to register the needy for their weekly visit to the food pantry around the corner. But instead of having to deal with some officious bureaucrat, when they enter, they chat over coffee and cake with community volunteers. 

"We're careful to guard the dignity of our clients," says Sam Jampetro, the Anglican priest who oversees the operation. "You can't tell who the clients are and who are the volunteers." He smiles, and his startling blue eyes sparkle. "That's just how we want it."

Jampetro chucked a career in communications to enroll in divinity school and work in his down-at-the-heels hometown. He began his Charis 247 ministry five years ago; the Coraopolis Community Development Foundation and food pantry followed.

A year ago, his organization helped fill food sacks for 20 poor families. The client list has since swollen five-fold, serving folks from the neighborhood as well as nearby Neville Island and Moon Township. 

"We don't just give them a bag of groceries," coordinator Kelly Willard says. "We don't decide what they get. They do."

Once the paperwork is handled, clients are directed around the corner to a one-room, makeshift grocery store. And while you may be imagining folks silently snatching bags of food and skulking out, there's an air of gaiety here. These people are glad to be there, glad to have regular folks helping them with their groceries.

"This is what we're going for," Jampetro says: "Neighbors being together and helping each other."

Some come under their own steam. Others need help. An older man wobbles in, juggling a cane and a cloth shopping bag. "I'm hanging in there," he says proudly. 

The shelves are stocked with donations from many sources: the Greater Pittsburgh Food Bank; food drives arranged by schools 'n' Scouts 'n' selfless souls; area churches; the Salvation Army; Turner Dairy; and others. Charis church members and community volunteers assist clients in choosing healthy, well-balanced meals. "We try to get the most nutritious options," Willard says.

Sure, you can find the standard pasta and boxed potatoes, canned pickles and peas, soups and salad dressings. But there're also fresh tomatoes and green peppers, beans and radishes. "We do try to highlight fresh stuff," Jampetro says. And with the store stocked with healthy staple items, people in need can find meals that are increasingly hard to come by anywhere else. 

"Most people put feeding their families above paying utility bills," Willard says. But not paying the latter often leads to service cuts — often not an option as the weather turns colder. There's always a need for food, Jampetro adds, but especially in the cold months, when utility bills take a bigger bite, along with the cost of clothes, doctor visits and home repairs.

"A little help can be a big deal," he says.

A hefty woman with long, straggling hair maneuvers her walker through the two narrow aisles. Going for long-lasting, stick-to-your-ribs proteins, she reaches for ground beef and turkey, cheese and eggs. 

"I want a pretty girl to help me today," a slender man says, grinning at a strawberry-blonde volunteer. Sporting blue jeans, work shirt and unkempt hair, he carries a red Salvation Army bag. Pickles? "They look good," he says with a nod, then points at the San Giorgio elbow macaroni.

"All right, everybody," he waves, then bows to his volunteer. "Thanks, Red. See you later."

"Right now, we're just meeting people's individual needs," Jampetro says, as he watches the man depart. Sure, there was a Thanksgiving dinner, and there'll be some Christmas toys and gift cards coming, but they're no more than stop-gaps. 

"Down the road we hope to create a flourishing community," Jampetro adds. "But right now there's no end to it. A lot of people are just struggling."

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