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Food Closet comes back from the brink

South Palo Alto pantry serves families still struggling in the down economy

Two years ago, the South Palo Alto Food Closet faced imminent closure, after steadily providing groceries for thousands of hungry local families for 33 years. As with so many programs that were founded in the middle of the last century, the steadfast volunteers who ran it were aging, and new leaders had yet to step forward.

But due to the devotion of parishioners at Covenant Presbyterian Church and others in the faith community, the East Meadow Drive pantry has been revived.

The food closet provides badly needed groceries to 85 to 100 needy Palo Alto families, according to Jan Hoover, treasurer of the board that runs the program.

"It's surprising sometimes what people are going through," Hoover said, recalling how fortunes can quickly change. Some people just need a boost to tide them over for a short time.

One family with three children had a daughter with recurring cancer. Medical expenses ate up their wages, and even with two working parents, they could not make ends meet, she said.

One summer a teacher at a local community college arrived to receive food for her three small children. The teacher couldn't find work when the college didn't hold a summer session, Hoover said.

"I had no idea the need in the community was so great," she said.

With housing expenses consuming a large portion of people's income, the food closet helps close the gap by putting good-quality food on the table, she said.

Families with children or with a disabled adult can come once weekly to pick up milk, meat, eggs and canned goods; families of two without children can come every other week, she said. The clients, whose income mustn't exceed 150 percent of the poverty level, are referred to the pantry by churches, St. Vincent de Paul Society, schools or social workers at the Opportunity Center.

Second Harvest Food Bank of San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties provides some of the food that is distributed, but the pantry also receives contributions from individuals, school groups and Scout troops, among others.

Volunteers pick up day-old bread and donations from Safeway, Piazza's, Trader Joe's and Draeger's, she said.

Then, there are the "urban gleaners," who collect from stores the cartons of partially smashed eggs, dented but sealed milk cartons, or other slightly bruised but edible foods that won't be sold. Volunteers pick out broken eggshells and clean up cartons, repackaging them into a full dozen that clients can take home, she said. For Thanksgiving the families received gift cards to Safeway that could go for a turkey or other holiday-meal fixings.

Eight churches and the Jewish Community Center Senior Group also routinely take part in the collection and distribution, purchasing chickens and other meats with cash donated by parishioners.

The first Sunday of each month parishioners bring canned food. Some make memorial cash donations in someone's name, according to Mary Lee Templeton, a board member and former church elder.

On Dec. 2, from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Dec. 3, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Dec. 4, noon to 2 p.m. the Covenant church will host an alternative-giving fair, which offers gifts for sale to support artisans in other countries and which will also feature an opportunity to help the food closet, she said.

The food closet was founded in 1978, Hoover said. The lifeline almost ended in 2009.

But one Covenant church member refused to let the pantry shut down. The late Jean Scott, who was also instrumental in creating Greer Park, was "a tireless warrior" when it came to a cause she believed in, Templeton said.

"She was one of the smallest and quietest people at the church," she recalled. But Scott did a sales pitch to church members and local churches to revive the food closet.

Hoover said monetary donations for the holiday season, which go to purchasing fresh meat, are needed. The program has enough canned goods for now. The food bank is a tax-deductible nonprofit organization and is located at Covenant Presbyterian Church, 670 East Meadow Drive, Palo Alto.

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