New location needed for food pantry

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Several times a week for many years, volunteers at the area's only food bank have set up shop at First Baptist Church of Belen and passed out food to needy families.

But the church's growing and aging congregation needs the same ground-floor space the food bank uses as its distribution center. Therefore, the volunteers need to find a new location to continue serving those in need.

Since 2007, the Belen Area Food Pantry has handed out nearly 50,000 pounds of food to residents each month.

"We have a population within the congregation that is (made up of) older folks who can't navigate stairs and our handicap accessibility is limited," said Laurie Duffy, ministerial assistant at First Baptist Church of Belen, located at 401 Becker Ave.

"So with expanding numbers because the church is growing, we do have expanding need for ground-floor space."

The number of people attending Sunday service has substantially increased, Duffy said, since the full-time pastor David Guerrero arrived in August 2011.

Under Guerrrero's guidance, the church has expanded several programs, including its youth ministry program, which shares the space the pantry uses.

Although the church has allowed the pantry to use its space to pass out food, they are two separate organizations, said Dawn Vigil, Belen Area Food Pantry's executive director.

"It's been a really good deal for the pantry, but we simply have outgrown the space," she said. "It is like living with Mom and Dad for all of those years and it's time to move out."

Vigil said the pantry has been a place where qualifying families can go and receive up to a week's worth of uncooked food to help them get through rough times.

Nearly 60 percent of the pantry's clients have an adult 62 years of age or older. Those households are eligible to receive food assistance each month and other households, every other month.

In the past three years, the number of households seeking assistance from the food pantry doubled to 600. Pantry volunteers said they anticipate that number will only grow once cuts to the federal food stamp program, known as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, take effect Nov. 1.

"We have had people telling us all week that at the beginning of October their food stamp benefits were cut and so the need is not going to get any less," Duffy said. "It's going to get greater."

Besides working at the First Baptist Church for the past 10 years, Duffy also serves as the pantry's treasurer. She said it would be nice to find a donated or low-cost space large enough to allow the pantry to grow and possibly expand its service.

"We need a place where we won't have to pay any rent because we are going to have to pay electricity and (other) things we haven't had to pay for through the years," Duffy said.

"We need to be able to maintain the level of services we are at right now or possibly increase it in the next year."

She said it would be nice to offer nutrition, budgeting and life-skills classes that would be benefit the community at large.

The church hasn't given the pantry an exact exit date, but pantry officials said they would like to be in a new place by January.

So far, pantry volunteers have asked several nonprofits and governmental agencies if they could donate space for the pantry's distribution center.