Volunteers begin the distribution of food outside the Nativity Place Food Pantry during an event in late March. (Photo/Dan Gallagher)

As local, statewide and national unemployment rates climb and families find their incomes slashed, food pantries operated by Catholic Human/ Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton are seeing an influx of new faces seeking help. From Hazleton to Carbondale, large numbers of first-time visitors have reached out for assistance as they find themselves out of work.

“People are coming out in droves,” Stephanie Miller, Director, Catholic Social Services Scranton and Carbondale, said. At the Nativity Place Food Pantry in South Scranton, Miller said, “we served more than 90 people in one day. Normally, an average for us is 40 so we are more than double.” In addition to new faces seeking assistance, Miller said many seniors are also now asking for help.

“We’re here to help the community. We want to be there for the community,” Miller added. In Hazleton, where the number of COVID-19 cases is reported to be particularly high, the need is just as great. “During the first three weeks in March, we saw about 550-560 families. Normally for a month, the average is about 425 families,” Neil Oberto, Director, Catholic Social Services Hazleton, said. While the Catholic Social Services food pantry in Hazleton scaled back its operating schedule to two days per week for the sake of volunteers, it is still committed to providing help and hope.

“This is part and parcel of our mission. I think folks recognize that,” Oberto said. In the city of Wilkes-Barre, the Saint Vincent de Paul Food Pantry has seen its numbers remain relatively consistent over the last month. “We have seen newer faces. I think it is people who are scared. Some are getting it (food) because they’re scared,” Mike Cianciotta, Director of Saint Vincent de Paul Kitchen, said. The Wilkes-Barre food pantry remains open weekly on Tuesday and Thursday.

“ Usually they’re only supposed to come once a month but right now I’m not keeping track. People can come whenever they need food,” Cianciotta added. While food pantry operators have seen an increase in need, they have also seen an increase in public support for their operations. “We’re very grateful for the support from the community,” Oberto said.

Oberto said he has received numerous calls from businesses and individuals offering support, donations and outreach.

One of the most recent donations came from the Lackawanna College Hazleton Center, which donated toilet paper, cleaning supplies and non-perishable items to the Catholic Social Services facility in Hazleton.

“As a part of the Hazleton community, our faculty, staff and students are honored to donate what we are able to during this unprecedented time. We are committed to the success of our city and will do whatever we can to help individuals in need,” April Harris-Snyder, Director of the Lackawanna College Hazleton Center, said.

That community support has become apparent in all areas where Catholic Social Services operates pantries. “We just had Giant Food Mart reach out to us and offer to donate to our pantry twice a week so our community has been very supportive,” Miller added about the situation in Scranton.

“The Scranton Federation of Teachers has been sending us money for the pantry. Everyone is realizing this is an issue and they want to help.” Miller adds that even though public Masses have been temporarily suspended, the Church of Saint Gregory in Clarks Green is still holding its regular collection for Catholic Social Services’ food pantries.

“People are aware of what is going on and they really see what we do at this time,” Cianciotta added. During the coronavirus pandemic, operators of each food pantry said it is humbling to see the important work of serving others continue at the time it is needed most. “This is God’s love through people who step up and help,” Oberto said.