In the summer of 1972, Hurricane Agnes flooded the Susquehanna River, destroying many Harrisburg houses and leaving families homeless and hungry.
In response, a group of local church volunteers sprung into action to deliver emergency food to victims. The merging of these faith-based organizations started an ecumenical movement—later founding and naming their organization, the Ecumenical Food Pantry (EFP).
Fifty years later, EFP has served more than 1.2 million people in the greater Harrisburg area. The pantry has expanded from individual donations and grocery store overstock to participating in the State Food Purchase Program within the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. Each week, EFP estimates that it receives between 4,000 to 6,000 pounds of food from the supplier, which serves more than 27 counties across the region.
“The 11 original volunteers had no idea that their efforts would lead to an organization spanning decades and meeting the needs of 25 households, representing more than 95 individuals, each day,” said Deidre Lenker, EFP executive director. “We have been a reliable resource during devastating natural disasters, crushing inflation, record unemployment and a worldwide pandemic, providing for those facing food insecurity.”
Unlike other food pantries in the area, EFP is open five days a week and every third Saturday. No appointments or vouchers are necessary. The operation sustains its hours through its 175-plus volunteers who stock, bag and distribute food throughout the year.
One volunteer, Lori Knittel, has been with the organization for four years and now sits on the board of directors. As a retired school counselor, Knittel understands the importance of food security to low-income families.
“Today, approximately one out of every three Harrisburg city residents live below the poverty line,” Knittel said. “The need for our services is still very real in our community after 50 years of service. Last month alone, we served nearly 1,900 people at the pantry.”
Clients are typically given a three-day supply of food every 30 days based on the size of their family. Pre-packed bags can include canned and packaged items such as cereal, juice, soup, peanut butter and more. Frozen and refrigerated items are added to the order at the time of pickup and can include fresh produce, meats, cheese, eggs and butter. The organization has recently expanded its offerings to meet dietary and cultural needs by having halal meat available and vegetarian options.
To commemorate their 50th anniversary, EFP plans to hold a celebration in September at its home in Messiah Lutheran Church in Harrisburg with live entertainment, refreshments, games and pantry tours.
“It is an opportunity to let the community know who we are and how they can get involved,” Lenker said. “We want to honor the thousands of volunteers who have donated their time and the community donors who have helped our organization stay afloat.”
Interested in giving back? Donors can make a $50 donation in honor of their anniversary year as part of a “50 for 50” campaign.
“Monetary donations are the best way to support us as we can leverage low-cost options for the essential items we need,” Lenker said. “We also love to get donations of personal care items such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes and toilet paper.”
As EFP looks toward the future, they’re excited to move to a choice-pantry model where clients can shop their shelves for food. This opportunity will further their mission to respond to each client’s needs and maintain sufficient food options for all, including those who are homeless and need special accommodations.
To help overcome language barriers, EFP also is looking for volunteers who are able to offer language services for its diverse client base. To this end, some dedicated volunteers are even taking online language courses.
“The EFP has been privileged to serve Harrisburg for a half-century, becoming one of the largest front-line distributors of emergency food assistance in the midstate,” Lenker said. “However, our volume has doubled, and we need our community’s support now more than ever as food prices increase alongside our clients’ needs.”
The Ecumenical Food Pantry is located at Messiah Lutheran Church, 901 N. 6th St., Harrisburg. For more information or to volunteer, visit www.efoodpantry.org.
If you like what we do, please support our work. Become a Friend of TheBurg!