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Upper Merion food cupboard celebrates first year of success

July 15, 2019

Source, The Times Herald, Gary Puleo

UPPER MERION — “Look for the red wooden doors.”

For those who are hungry and food insufficient in the Upper Merion Area School District or eager to help those who are, those red doors at the Upper Merion Area Community Cupboard (UMACC) help make the food pantry a little easier to find at Valley Forge Presbyterian Church in King of Prussia.

UMACC opens its doors to patrons every Tuesday, 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

Given the pantry’s success in its first year — recently celebrated with an open house — pastor Tim Dooner is convinced that area volunteers have found the cause they’ve been waiting for, as they sort and stock food donations here on Tuesdays and make deliveries.

“There have been a lot of people in Upper Merion, and Bridgeport too, who have really responded to our call to step up and support the community. And they were almost salivating to do it,” Dooner said. “They know this was the community caring expression that they had been longing for, and now we’re giving them an outlet for that energy. Anytime we put out a plea on social media and our website, we’ve been inundated with food.”

When Dooner arrived at Valley Forge Presbyterian Church in King of Prussia from a church in Emmaus nearly three years ago he was determined to nudge the congregation into his vision of a new era of community engagement.

“I wanted to help this congregation discover a new identity for itself moving forward, one that was much more about its engagement in the larger community,” said the Malvern native. “One of those first steps I knew to take from being in other places was to meet with the school district social workers — they’re the real boots on the ground. So the Upper Merion Area School District social workers, started to tell the story of how the number of kids on free and reduced lunch was going up every year. The instances of seeing families with kids caught in the eviction loop or becoming situationally homeless, it just felt that everything was speeding up. It’s a big shock to folks who have a certain understanding of what Upper Merion is, and the realities were true in Emmaus also, which was another of those ‘it couldn’t possibly happen here’ kind of towns. Everybody assumed all the need was in Allentown, just as everyone here assumes the need is in Bridgeport and Norristown.”

A quarter of Upper Merion residents fall under a category the United Way calls ALICE, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained Employed, Dooner explained.

“So, it’s working people who are just not making enough to pay the bills in a certain area. In Upper Merion, that’s a couple thousand people. In Bridgeport, which we also serve because they’re within the bounds of our school district, it’s 12,000 households. That’s more than half the population of Bridgeport that falls in this category, having an income but not enough to make ends meet” Dooner noted.

“We started with the nonperishable staples, with the assumption that we’re not serving primarily the chronically homeless, we’re serving primarily those who are food insufficient because they’re asset-limited,” he pointed out. “So if we can save them on their grocery bill by getting them these staples then that’s more money they have to commit to the rent, the mortgage, medical bills, educational costs. We’re helping them to balance their budget when they just weren’t able to make ends meet. There’s a wonderful organization called Upper Merion Emergency Aid,” he added, “that has been able to meet the needs for the last 75 years. But the need had outgrown the capacity. We’ve worked hand in hand with them and they transitioned out of doing food, which they hadn’t done that regularly to begin with — they had done food monthly or seasonally, but we’re doing it every week. And they’re focusing on things like emergency bill pay, school supplies, shoes. Now they’re directing all their people to us for food.”

The food cupboard started coming together soon after Dooner proposed the idea to the church leaders, he recalled.

“I took this conversation I had with the social workers back to our leadership and said to them ‘is this something we wanted to explore’, and they said ‘yes, we want to be part of this community in a positive way,’” he said. “A bunch of us started meeting regularly. There were a couple of voices from other churches, from other townships. We knew we couldn’t do it by ourselves. There was a sense that if we all worked together we could do something. In the spring of 2018 we said ‘let’s start trying and see what it becomes.’ We bought some shelves. The schools started bringing food. All the churches started collecting food, corporations started donating food. And we started serving the food insecure population within the bounds of the school district … Upper Merion, Bridgeport, West Conshohocken and parts of Wayne.”

When Dooner asked the congregation if anyone wanted to get involved, Eileen Wilkie was the first one to volunteer, he recalled.

“All the schools in the district started their own collections for us. One school would collect peanut butter and jelly, another would collect pancake mix,” said Wilkie, who can normally be found on Tuesday seated with Dooner at a table just inside the entrance to the food cupboard, greeting patrons.

Clients do not need to present any identification or proof of income, she said.

“They fill out a form when they come in and that’s it. You just have to live in our school district. For years people from Upper Merion were going to pantries in Norristown because Upper Merion didn’t have a pantry, so if we get people here from Norristown, I don’t sweat it. As people come here for a while, they’ll tell a neighbor they should come here, and that’s one way we’re growing,” noted Wilkie, who said the cupboard now serves up to 25 families and individuals, who are asked to visit every two weeks for their supplies, ranging from tuna, peanut butter, pasta, individual snacks for kids and even fresh local produce and government-provided frozen meats.

“We started out being 100 percent community donations and expanded,” said Dooner.

Food donation boxes are now located at Upper Merion Community Center, Upper Merion Township building and State Representative Tim Briggs’ office.

“In addition to our collection boxes we are open Thursday, 4:30 to 6 pm. for any individuals and organizations who want to drop off food,” Dooner noted, adding, with a laugh, “we have enough canned green beans to last into the next decade.”

To offset the inevitable influx of canned green beans, Wilkie regularly updates the pantry’s Facebook page with needed items, and goes shopping at places like Aldi to put the monetary donations to their most economic use.

Given a branded reusable bag and a shopping cart, clients stroll through the aisle selecting from the carefully arranged boxes and cans lining the shelves.

Noting that “we’re kind of late to the game in terms of Montgomery County, so a lot of places already have pre-existing relationships with the bigger pantries, like Philabundance or other organizations,” Dooner credited Wilkie with expanding the ever-growing list of community partners.

“What Eileen and others have done really well is figure out the information and make the connections that already exist … connect the dots in a way that sort of strengthens that community,” Dooner said.

“She’s been amazing on the organizational end, figuring out how to get connected to all the different foods, on the volunteer end, finding people all through the community in different ways to come and be a part of things, and making the patrons that come in from Tuesday to Tuesday not feel isolated but feel as if they’re part of this community.”

One of the goals here is to offer a wide range of healthy options for patrons, Dooner allowed.

“We may grow steadily into having a more well-rounded, healthier offering of food. Our other goal is to be more mobile. We know that just by being here with the door open on Tuesday it’s going to a somewhat self-limiting model. We have a few volunteers who go out and make deliveries. Some people just aren’t able to get here, for whatever reason. So there are a number of deliveries happening every week. One of the things we need to think about moving forward,” Dooner added, “is how to continue growing our delivery but also think about other places where we can go and sit with food so that we’re walkable to a greater percentage of the population than if we’re just here at this one location.”

From the beginning the vision has been focused beyond just handing out food, Dooner pointed out.

“All along, our goal has been twofold. It hasn’t just been to do the food thing. It’s been to better connect our community so the resources that are already here can be directed in compassionate ways to the people who need it. When we get to a stronger place, they have their own gifts they can share with communities instead of using all their time and energy worrying about what they’re going to eat.”

The UMACC is located at Valley Forge Presbyterian Church, 191 Town Center Road, King of Prussia. The parking lot entrance is off Independence Road. Using 227 Independence Road (19406) as a destination in your GPS/Maps App will get you closest to the entrance. For more information, visit