High-Volume Merchantville Food Pantry ‘Pauses’ Service After Complaints About Traffic, User Behavior


The volunteer-led food pantry at Grace Episcopal Church is serving hundreds of hungry families a week, but borough officials say it’s having an outsized impact on the neighborhood.

By Matt Skoufalos | March 13, 2024

Bagged food at the Merchantville Grace Episcopal Church food pantry. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

For some 40 years, the Dolores F. Clark Food Pantry at the Grace Episcopal Church of Merchantville has been feeding hungry people in South Jersey.

At the time of its founding, the pantry served an estimated 35 to 50 families a week.

By 2015, a partnership with the Pennsauken-based Food Bank of South Jersey stabilized its volunteer base, and expanded operations.

Even when the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic shuttered the sanctuary to in-person worship in 2020, parishioners resolved to keep the pantry going.

“By 2022, we were serving 200 families a week,” said Reverend Bob Fitzpatrick, rector at the church. “By 2023, it jumped to 300; then 500, 700, to where we’re serving 900 families a week.”

Along with that uptick in patronage — which follows national trends in the wake of inflation and curtailed social benefits after the pandemic — has come a surge in vehicle volume.

During the pantry hours of operation, volunteer Linda Purves of Pennsauken described a line of vehicles stretching down Maple Avenue as far as Cove Road.

“Unless we’re at Cove Road managing it, it’ll stretch to Pennsauken,” Purves said, adding, “it has stretched to Pinsetter’s,” a bowling alley more than a half-mile away.

“People aren’t only coming from Merchantville,” she said; “they’re coming from Pennsauken, Camden City, Maple Shade, Woodbury.”

Typically, people rely on food pantries to supplement their regular purchases; however, some users have more intense needs. These issues can be compounded when pantries discontinue service.

“One of our clients has told us 90 percent of what he puts on his table comes from us,” said Grace Episcopal Food Pantry Coordinator Estella Plaza.

Fr. Bob Fitzpatrick and food pantry volunteers at the Grace Episcopal Church of Merchantville. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

The urgency and scale of that need, and the fact that it hasn’t retreated in the post-pandemic era, has left the church in a bind, Fitzpatrick said.

Last week, he was called into a meeting with Merchantville Fire Chief Kevin Patti, Police Chief Richard Grassia, Borough Clerk Denise Brouse, and Zoning Officer Rebecca Callaway to discuss the impact the pantry has had on the borough.

Although the conversation touched on several topics, Fitzpatrick said he left with an understanding “that we would respond to the request — suggestion, order, we’re not sure which — of the borough to immediately suspend operations.

“We have an obligation to feed the hungry,” he said. “We have an obligation to the just application of secular law. We have an obligation to be a good neighbor to all. The recent growth maybe beginning to exhaust the balance among those obligations.”

Fitzpatrick said that Merchantville Mayor Ted Brennan, who was not at the meeting, but called him in person afterwards, expects the pantry closure will be temporary; “measured in terms of a few weeks.

“They’re making themselves available as we sharpen the definition of the problem statement,” Fitzpatrick said.

To that end, volunteers packing bags into car trunks Wednesday morning also informed clients that the pantry wouldn’t be there next week, and directed them to alternative sites in the area.

How brief of a hiatus it might be will depend upon how quickly the pantry organizers can develop a solution to reorganize their approach to food distribution.

Sarah Geiger, Senior Director of Programs and Services at The Food Bank of South Jersey, said her organization is lending technical assistance to the church to help resolve some of the logistical issues there.

“In the immediate, we have a variety of local pantries in Merchantville, Pennsauken, Cherry Hill,” Geiger said. “We’ve alerted them.

“It is a big deal for this pantry to close, but we’re going to support the other pantries ongoing,” she said. “We want to help [the Grace Episcopal pantry] to stay onsite.”

Sarah Geiger, Senior Director of Programs & Services at the Food Bank of South Jersey. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

The food pantry organizers at Grace Episcopal Church don’t want to be reliant on another organization for an alternative space, Geiger said, and they have good reason to remain there.

The church kitchen is capable of preparing and serving a considerable volume of food, and also includes a number of refrigerators and freezers that support service of perishable food, which not every pantry offers.

Moreover, its “ecosystem” of volunteers has created “a very thriving, positive community experience,” she said.

“At the heart of it is serving those in need who show up,” Geiger said. “That is why we strongly believe in our agency network: they are the heart and soul of these communities. It really has this ripple effect; it’s giving people a sense of purpose.”

Geiger said that she’s heard some of the neighborhood complaints beyond traffic volumes. Sometimes vehicle lines form hours before the distribution center opens; driveways have been blocked with traffic. Some people have been reportedly played loud music while waiting, and even relieved themselves in public. None of that behavior is acceptable, even for people suffering from food insecurity.

“We have been working with the agency to help them understand that they don’t have to serve people who won’t cooperate,” Geiger said. “When people come to get services, they need to behave appropriately.”

Although she believes the pantry volunteers “have been doing a great job” at managing the flow of vehicle traffic, the scale of volume might be too much for the site to accommodate. Even if that’s the case, Geiger said, “that doesn’t mean they’ve exhausted all the solutions for the neighborhood to make it run smoothly and work for everybody.”

Possible efficiencies could be gained from corralling vehicle traffic in a different pattern, or by operating multiple pantries during the same hours to alleviate the pressure on Maple Avenue. Families could sign up for appointment-based pickups, or offer multiple pick-up days per week.

Volunteers at the Merchantville Grace Episcopal Church food pantry. Credit: Matt Skoufalos.

“There’s a lot of ways to do this, but the borough has determined that they have to approve the plan before they reopen,” Geiger said.

Whatever corrections are made to the pantry operations, shutting it down permanently is not an option organizers are willing to accept.

Geiger spoke about the scope of food insecurity in the four-county area served by the Food Bank of South Jersey as having climbed by 20,000 people per month on average, from 150,000 in 2022, to 170,000 in 2024. The intense use of the Grace Episcopal Pantry may simply be a reflection of regional economic conditions.

“It’s one of our largest and most well-run distributions,” she said. “We support our agency to continue to work with the borough.”

Merchantville officials declined to comment on the pantry operations outside of a prepared statement that borough Mayor Ted Brennan offered to reporters:

“Grace Episcopal Church leaders and Borough staff, including our Chief of Police, met last week to discuss ongoing safety concerns related to the food pantry currently run by the church.

“The Borough is very supportive of the food pantry and its service to our larger community, and we recognize that food insecurity is a major issue plaguing our community and our surrounding areas. But what began as a small food pantry of 30 cars has ballooned into 900 folks coming to the borough each Wednesday. The church leaders and pantry operators agreed during the meeting that the food pantry had grown beyond their control at this point.

“The Borough expressed concerns about public safety and public nuisance as we have continually fielded complaints from residents over the past few months about both. The Borough and church leadership agreed the pantry could not continue in its present form; that a pause was necessary, and that a plan for a path forward must be generated and agreed to by the parties so we can address the concerns of the public and run a safe pantry.

“We look forward to working with Grace Episcopal to create a plan that works for all, and reopening the food pantry in the very near future.”

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