Helping Hands: The Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry Gives Back
Escaping the blustery weather for the warm Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry (SHCFP), clients are greeted with a smile and a glimpse at the beautiful mosaic above the front desk. From there, they can grab a shopping cart, navigate the aisles stocked with nutritional foods and home essentials, and choose the best items to bring
home to their families.
“Our pantry is unique in which we have a client-choice model,” says Matthew Bolton, director of the SHCFP. “We’re set up like a grocery store, and clients shop with volunteers.” While there are limits on certain food categories, the format allows clients to not only choose what foods they like, but also skip over what they don’t like — a unique luxury for food pantries. And for unfamiliar products that clients are curious about trying, the pantry’s educated staff provides preparation and storage tips, as well as recipes they can try.
Bolton says the group strives to have fresh produce make up 20 percent of its total offerings — a goal they surpassed this quarter, with 25-28 percent of goods distributed falling under the category — and have 2 percent or more be whole grains and legumes. The initiative impacts the health of the clients by being able to provide better options and tools to cook healthier dishes for their families. One of the newest initiatives to supplement the movement is the different spice mixes — including those for chili, breakfast, Italian, and BBQ dishes — developed by an AmeriCorps Health Corps member.
“Basically, we have them available to our clients, along with recipes based on products that they receive right here in the pantry, to empower them to shop for and make healthier meals, and also re-introduce them to whole foods,” Bolton says. “Over the past 10-20 years, most Americans have become reliant on processed foods. We’re trying to move away from that. With our produce and our whole grains and our spices, along with some of our canned goods, we’re trying to get families to start cooking again.”
In doing so, the organization is completing its mission to feed the hungry within the 15127 zip code, which covers the Squirrel Hill area, as well as those who practice a kosher diet. Approximately 1,200 to 2,000 individuals seek the services of the SHCFP — which breaks down to 400-600 families, 330 seniors, and 300-400 children each month.
“A common misconception is that people who go to food pantries aren’t working — but that’s not true,” Bolton says. “They’re just not making enough money to make ends meet. The latest statistics say that one in five families are suffering from food insecurity — they don’t know where their next meal may come from. When you look at a family budget, the most flexible bill in a household is always the grocery bill. If you lapse on your gas or your electricity bill, you’ll get them shut off and get hit with penalties. With the grocery bill, you can always cut it down. Unfortunately, that’s where you really see the impact of hunger in our communities.”
To ease the stress of food insecurity, the SHCFP is open five to six days a week. Individuals can shop once a month and families are welcomed twice a month. And thanks to the services of the Vaad of Pittsburgh, a council of rabbis that ensures the pantry follows the kosher laws that are laid out in the Book of Leviticus, and a Mashgiach, a kosher rabbi who makes weekly or monthly visits to also make sure the dietary laws are upheld, the SHCFP can take pride in being the only kosher pantry in Southwestern PA. “We have a kosher section of the pantry as well as a non-kosher section,” Bolton clarifies. “Given the population that we have here in Squirrel Hill, we’re able to help families that follow a religious diet be able to have a proper meal. A lot of the fresh meats that are kosher are much more expensive than those that are non-kosher, so it can make it much more challenging.”
To aid in all of life’s challenges, the SHCFP also has a full-time social worker on staff. As a part of Jewish Family & Children’s Service of Pittsburgh (JF&CS), the SHCFP contributes to providing “wrap-around support” for anyone experiencing life transitions, along with S.O.S. Pittsburgh, which is a program for people in crisis; the Family Hope Connection, which is its adoption agency; the Refugee and Immigration Department; the Career Development Center; senior services; psychological services; and guardianship services.
“JF&CS is about transitions in life, so any transition that occurs — whether it’s moving or a change in lifestyle — we have it covered,” Bolton says. “Many, many times, we have clients [at the SHCFP] who are food insecure but could also use some help in looking for a job or working on a resume. [Likewise,] the Career Development Center may notice clients who are also food insecure and refer them to us. It covers all the bases.”
Through the continued support of volunteers, the group is able to keep those bases covered, too. Over 1,600 community members donate their time to shop with clients, deliver food to house-bound clients, sort canned goods, stock shelves, and even break down cardboard.
“We couldn’t do what we do without the help of our volunteers,” Bolton says. “My favorite part of working here is the people — the volunteers, the clients. Being able to work with people is really gratifying to me, and it’s a lot of fun to see the strong community we have and be able to serve people here at a wonderful organization, such as JF&CS.”
"On the day of our shoot, the Squirrel Hill Community Food Pantry was overflowing with donations to the High Holiday Food Drive. To help its clients celebrate the Jewish High Holidays — Sukkot, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah — the pantry collected almost 8,000 pounds of food from local congregations in just under four weeks. “Serving a Jewish population, it’s very important for us to make sure they’re able to celebrate these holidays properly,” Bolton says. “We’re lucky to have a very strong community within the Squirrel Hill and Greater Pittsburgh areas.”
To volunteer yourself or with a group, call 412.421.2708.