By Mike Patterson

Back in the previous era, that is, before the Covid-19 pandemic emerged and disrupted lives around the world, clients of the Elaine Kadane Food Pantry at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Dallas walked along tables set up in the parish hall and picked up whatever items they wanted.

That’s all changed now. Like many churches that assist those in need of nourishment, Ascension has adjusted its 28 years of food service by moving the pantry from indoors to outdoors to reduce the risk of spreading the highly contagious virus. They’ve also had to reduce the choices that clients once enjoyed.

“We have implemented a drive up, get loaded and drive out policy,” Hope Harbeck, Ascension’s food pantry leader, said in an email to The Living Church. “Clients stay in their cars and we load in their trunk or back seat. So they don’t get to choose much. We do have a couple items where they choose. We ask them and load it into the car.”

It’s been an adjustment for a service that has been offered by Ascension since 1992.  The idea for the food pantry originated with Ascension parishioner Elaine Kadane, hence its name.  At the time, she was volunteering at a non-profit organization that offered a food pantry and a clothes closet and suggested to then-rector Rev. Michael Harmuth that the church launch a similar effort.

“His one requirement was that the pantry provide food to anyone who came,” noted Harbeck. The pantry began operation in January 1992. “The first day they gave out three bags,” Harbeck said.

Ascension obtains most of its food for the cost of handling from the Sharing Life Hub of North Texas Food Bank and sometimes purchases additional items not available through the food bank. Others sources include food donated by parishioners and community members, plus the Ascension Day School and the nearby Presbyterian Hospital have done food drives for the pantry.

“We also get lots of donations of fresh produce from our ECA Community Garden,” Harbeck said. “Garden volunteers pick it the morning of pantry.” Over the years, they’ve received bread, pastry or even sub roll donations.

The food pantry is normally open from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. the first and third Tuesday of every month. They added an extra pantry day on March 31 due to the Covid-19 crisis and “it was a month with five Tuesdays. Our clients are welcome to come to both of those pantries. We do not restrict them to coming once per month,” Harbeck said.

“The pantry also provides bags to distribute through the office as needs arise,” said the Rev. Paul Klitzke, Ascension’s rector.  “This has been a helpful as we are always able to offer food as we try to respond to the needs of our community.”

Following Harmuth’s original requirement, Ascension still serves “anyone who comes. In the early days of the pantry it was mostly seniors on limited incomes,” Harbeck said. “But over the years it has become more varied. We have young families, seniors, homeless people, immigrants and refugees. They can come from any part of the city.” The pantry does have an income screening requirement from the government.

What food is available for distribution depends on what Ascension obtains from the food bank or is donated. Non-perishable foods include canned vegetables, fruits and soups; canned pork, beef and chili; peanut butter; dried fruits; walnuts, pistachios and peanuts; beef stew pouches; dried beans; white and brown rice; canned salmon and tuna; shelf stable milk; flour, sugar and juices.

“The perishable are any type of produce we can get from our garden or from Sharing Life,” she said. “We have obtained a great variety over time including carrots, peppers, avocados, mangos, lettuce, onions, potatoes, sweet potatoes, grapefruit, pears, apples, cucumbers, squash, oranges, many kinds of greens, celery, and tomatoes.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has increased the demand for food by up to 20 percent. “We have probably had more than 20 or 30 cars lined up sometimes,” Harbeck said. On March 31, “we had 60 families come and gave out about 72 bags or so. “

The pantry provides a fixed amount of food for each family of up to four members. “It there are five or more in the family, we give them double the amount,” she said.

About 40 people are involved in the pantry on service days, help pick up purchased food or work in the church vegetable garden.  Although most are members of Ascension, a few are volunteers from the community.

“A lot of other church members support the church financially with monetary or food donations,” she said. “The pantry is not supported through the church’s operating budget. It is funded strictly by donations to the pantry and, sometimes, a grant.”

Several volunteers are unable to assist the pantry now because their age or health conditions make them especially vulnerable to the virus.  “However, with the drive through model we can do it with less volunteers,” Harbeck said. “We volunteers also want to maintain social distance to protect ourselves. Most of us are over 60. We are also wearing masks and gloves.”

While other churches throughout Dallas offer food pantries, “one thing that I think is unique with us is that our church provides food to anyone that shows up on pantry day,” Harbeck said. “We don’t make appointments.  With some churches, folks make appointments in advance and come at a specific time.”

She said “our clients are very happy that we are continuing to keep the pantry open in these trying times. Friends I know in the community and others I don’t know are stepping up to make monetary and food donations.”

Klitzke praised the work of the volunteers the food pantry. “Outbound ministries are central to who we are at Ascension,” he said. “I am often impressed with the dedication and thoughtfulness of those from Ascension who not only come together to make sure the pantry happens, but also their continued imagination as to improve what is offered and provide more food to more people.”

“It has been great to see this ministry in action, and a delight to see how others from the community help this offering reach more people,” he said.