Family Pantry of Cape Cod: Fighting Hunger in Our Community

By / Photography By Doug Langeland | December 01, 2013
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Family Pantry of Cape Cod in Harwich

On a sunny October morning I found the Family Pantry of Cape Cod in Harwich abuzz with activity. It was Eastern Bank’s Day of Caring, and a group of their employees had just started cleaning out the staff kitchen and the public storefront of the large warehouse containing the facility. Day of Caring is a national initiative of the United Way that pairs local businesses with local non-profits. The businesses team-build while they build community. Mary Anderson, the Executive Director of the food pantry, puts her total volunteer number at over 400: 50 run the thrift shop, 50 work in the garden, and the rest man the pantry itself. Volunteer Jim Obara, who applauds the leadership, considers it inspirational. “The volunteers are like a big family”.

Cape Cod might not be the obvious place to look for hunger. We think of the Cape as a well-heeled tourist destination, a series of charming villages with long stretches of beach. But away from all this, there is hunger among Cape residents. According to state statistics, one in nine people in Massachusetts need the assistance of a food pantry, with over 9000 people served here on Cape Cod. That is four percent of the population of Barnstable County. Hunger is the bad news. The good news is that the Cape is responding, and non-profits are making the difference. The Family Pantry of Cape Cod and its volunteers have joined forces to fight hunger in our communities.

The Family Pantry of Cape Cod started 24 years ago in a one-thousand-square-foot storefront on the Dennis-Harwich line on Route 28. The facility has grown with the community’s need. It spent eight years in larger quarters on Depot Road and finally ended up in its current location on Queen Anne Road, which has been modified to accommodate space needs. The big warehouse includes a storefront for the public through which groceries are distributed, storage for supplies, a clothing boutique, a recycling center to facilitate revenue from can returns (totaling $25,000-$28,000 of yearly income), staff offices and a small kitchen and conference room.

First timers at the food pantry meet with staff to ascertain their need, and factors such as income and number of people in the household are considered. Most visitors have already been qualified by the state or federal government for food stamps or help. If not, the pantry uses federal poverty guidelines, which for an individual is a yearly income of $21,257, and $43,568 for a family of four. Referrals to other agencies are offered as well, because if there is hunger, there are usually other issues involved. For example, fuel assistance starts in November, and pantry staff helps applicants apply to the South Shore Community Action Council for help heating their houses. Staff members also help applicants with food stamp applications to federal programs administered by state agencies. On Tuesdays, Outer Cape Health Care is present to help applicants get onto Mass Health.  Through its efforts and thanks to its volunteers, the food pantry is helping alleviate not only hunger, but also the symptoms of a wider poverty.

Once need has been determined, shoppers can come in every three weeks, unless they are approved to come more frequently due to extenuating circumstances. The storefront is well stocked with nutrition in mind, and the pantry is fortunate in that it has abundant refrigeration. Many food pantries are hampered in their attempts to offer fresh produce and meat by their lack of refrigeration. Not so here. There is an entire wall devoted to produce. This is where the food pantry meets the farm-to-table movement. Just outside the door, there is a beautiful half-acre garden tended by a committee of volunteers and managed by Leo Cakounes, a local cranberry grower.  Last year, its second full summer, the garden produced 4000 pounds of produce and herbs that went—freshly picked—right to the pantry shelves. The gardeners concentrate on produce that has proved popular, including lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans and eggplant, as well as herbs, blueberries and fruit. Community plots are also available in return for donations. If need exceeds what is grown onsite, produce comes free from the Greater Boston Food Bank, which is also working with nutrition in mind, or from donations from local gardens. Out of season, the pantry buys produce to ensure its supply.

To help meet nutritional standards, a nutrition committee supplies patrons with relevant information. This includes recipes, and each month a new recipe is offered with a bag of the required ingredients.  Surveys are taken for feedback, and there is a nutritional cookbook available. In line with the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Harwich pantry has eliminated salt from its offered canned vegetables and set up a food rating system. All of their products fall under a rating of one, two, or three. A rating of one means it should be consumed all the time as a healthy food. Two means it should be consumed some of the time, and three means occasional consumption only. The Greater Boston Food Bank has also contributed their suggested list of healthy items.

All of this well-meaning advice is backed up by the items on the shelves and in the freezers. There are dried goods, canned goods and fresh breads. Every Monday, two to three truckloads of food arrive from The Greater Boston Food Bank not only to stock the Family Pantry, but also for distribution to other Cape pantries. There are about 30 feeding programs across the Cape, and the Family Pantry serves as their connecting point to Boston’s food deliveries. Frozen meat is contributed by local supermarkets, which freeze their stock the day before it reaches its sell-by date to contribute to the pantry freezer.  There are also fresh eggs and American cheese. 

Recently, the pantry, funded by a grant from the June Palmer and June Davenport Foundation, began working with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance to add fish to their offerings. To kick off the program, the Alliance donated 700 pounds of scallops, which were flash frozen by Raw Seafoods in New Bedford and presented in one-pound bags to patrons with recipes provided by the nutrition committee. Eighty percent of patrons took the scallops, with rave reviews. This success has led to the pantry working with the Alliance to provide lessor-known fish species such as pollock, dogfish and sea clams. Harwich is interested in expanding the program to other pantries with freezer capacity.

Because visits by pantry patrons are confidential, I was unable to include their direct perspective. However, Patty Watson, the Assistant Director of the Family Pantry, narrowed down the demographics involved. Among the most consistent recipients are working families consisting of two parents with full-time jobs and two to three children. Despite their employment, ends are not met, leading to chronic food insecurity. Another considerable demographic consists of the elderly, typically living alone on social security that does not cover all expenses, who have relied on the food pantry for years. There are disabled veterans as young as 30, as well as seasonal workers who need assistance through the off-season.

Right now, within our communities, there are people making the tough choice between paying the electric bill and putting dinner on the table. Thanks to the Family Pantry and all its volunteers, that pressure might be eased somewhat.

Family Pantry of Cape Cod
133 Queen Anne Road, Harwich
508-432-6519 /

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