The wake of the nation's economic recession continues to rock lives, and the Panther Valley is no exception.
The need is increasing so much that the volunteers who work at the Shepherd House/Lansford Food Pantry are aiming to establish places in Lansford, Summit Hill, Nesquehoning and Coaldale where people in need can get a free bowl of soup and a sandwich. The program would start with the kitchen being open for one day a month at each location.
The Panther Valley Kitchen project grew from a growing awareness of hunger in the area, said pantry volunteer secretary Rita Trucio.
Last year, the pantry provided food for 2,951 people. This year, as of September, the pantry had already distributed food for 2,957 people, according to figures provided by Trucio.
There is no question that hunger is an issue in the area.
Recently, food pantry volunteers who live in Lansford were "talking about their neighbors who were losing their jobs, or their houses were being foreclosed on, or the house was on the market and no one was buying. So we were seeing the economic stresses of the community," she said.
But the need exceeds its ability to provide.
"The food pantry gives out food for families for three days; for each member of the family, three meals a day for three days," Trucio said. "(Volunteer) Larry (Mullen) and I sat there one day and said, and what do they do for the next 27 days?"
Although there is an emergency food program at Zion UCC in Lehighton, transportation is a roadblock for many low-income people.
Further, more needy folk from neighboring Coaldale have been asking for help, said Shepherd House representative Betty Pearson. However, because the pantry is a Carbon County program, it limits those from outside the county to one visit.
"Putting all these facts together, we said, why don't we do a soup kitchen?" Trucio said.
Trucio and other organizers are applying for tax-exempt, nonprofit status and insurance. Trucio estimates that starting the Panther Valley Kitchen will take about $1,500-$2,000.
"We'll be sticking to a basic soup and sandwich. Peanut and jelly, or cheese, to get started, to make sure we'll have enough money," she said. Since the soup kitchen would rely on donations, "we want to keep it affordable for us to do."
Today is Trucio's birthday. Instead of cards and gifts, she's asked friends and family to donate to the soup kitchen project.
"I don't need to be reminded of my birthday by a birthday card – I'd rather get the soup kitchen going and feed some people," she said.
Recently, Trucio and others met with Debra Ranck, chairwoman of the Summit Hill Heritage Center, who is helping the group get organized.
Ranck said the Heritage center would also be willing to be a kitchen site.
"We really do have a larger and larger low income group of people coming in," she said. "I'm worried about the adults, but I'm worried more about the kids being hungry.
"As jobs get leaner and incomes thinner, where are you going to save? Unfortunately, the first place people go is the food budget, because it's easier to knock down and try to stretch."
In addition to the Heritage Center, area churches, including Trinity Lutheran (where the food pantry is located), St. John's Slovak Lutheran Church in Lansford, and the Methodist church in Coaldale have expressed interest, Trucio said.
The Rev. John Keiter, pastor of Trinity Lutheran, sees the need for the soup kitchens.
"From the people who come to our pantry, it's obvious their needs exceed what we can do for them," he said.
But the project will take money for insurance, supplies and nonprofit status. Keiter's church is holding bake sales and seeking donations. He called on the community to help.
"We need help. We need people to volunteer, to provide food, to serve food," he said. "They need good funding for this, so we are trying to raise funds. They'll need more than $700 for the insurance alone."
Further, St. Mary's Russian Orthodox Church in Coaldale is interested in starting a food pantry.
"We've been talking about a food pantry for some time now," said St. Mary's pastor, the Rev. Daniel Mathewson.
Mathewson said there had been a small food pantry at St. Mary's Catholic Church, but that closed shortly before the Allentown Diocese closed St. Mary's, along with dozens of others in 2008 in anticipation of a shortage of priests.
"Christ calls us to feed the poor, to help those around us and to be a light," Mathewson said. "God calls us to help others in their need. When people help others, it has a positive effect – it brings us together in a spirit of unity and gives us a sense of community."
He hopes the Panther Valley will eventually develop an interest in community gardens that would bring healthier food to people and get people involved to enjoy first-hand the fruits of their labor.
One person who is grateful for the food pantry's efforts is Lansford resident Larry Mullen.
A year ago, Mullen had been laid off from a security management job. He finally found a part-time job, but needed SNAP to feed his family, which includes his wife and four children.
However, the food often ran out before the monthly SNAP benefits kicked in. He found out about the food pantry and paid a visit.
"I made the decision that if I was going to get the stuff, I would volunteer my time," he said. "The first day I went in, I got my portion. I put the stuff in my car and went back in, and they put me to work right away."
Mullen now helps unload food from the delivery truck, carries it to the cars of people who are unable to lift, and does other chores.