Monthly food boxes fill a need, bridge a gap between towns

HASTINGS-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — When you're pinching pennies and conserving food stamps, the end of the month is always the leanest time. In November, that tough time brings the added burden of Thanksgiving.

"At the end of the month the food stamps are stretched out, the food is diminished and even the pantry at our church is very low," says Ron Walker, outreach minister for the Church of the Cross in Pembroke Township, Ill.

It can make for a grim holiday in Pembroke Township, where the average yearly income is $9,642 and hundreds of families struggle "without running water, or with dirt floors, or torn-down roofs," Walker says.

But just in time, "the boxes" arrive — the food boxes from New York. Every month, 60 or more families in and around the village of Hastings-on-Hudson each pack up a week's worth of groceries for a family in Pembroke, timing the delivery to the last week of the month.

They follow a shopping list drawn up by the program's founder, Pam Koner, and often toss in extras such as linens or treats for the children. They also include a letter, from one family to the other.

"We're not sending money, and it's not a one-shot," Koner says. "We're sending food and we're offering friendship. We don't just do Thanksgiving and Christmas. We all send a box every month and we pack the food ourselves and we send a letter that says, 'How are you?' "

Pembroke is a rural community of about 3,000 residents, just one hour south of Chicago, and has no industry. According to the latest census data, more than half of the town's families with children under 5 live below the poverty level.

It's not easy to bridge the gulf between Pembroke and Hastings, a leafy, well-to-do New York City suburb on the Hudson River, where the average annual income is $50,000. Koner was sitting on her deck last year when she read a description of Pembroke Township in a newspaper story. The story, detailing hungry children, ramshackle homes and faded hopes, moved Koner to action.

"I had to do something," she says.

Because she runs day-care and after-school programs, Koner knows many families in Hastings. She talked to a few of them, got their support and telephoned the church mentioned in the Pembroke story.

"She said, 'What can I do?' " Walker recalls, "And I said, 'We always need food out here.' "

They called it Family to Family, and it grew from seven Hastings families to more than 60, which results in scores of heavy boxes being lugged by neighbors to the back door of Koner's house during the third week of each month. FedEx delivers them to the church in Pembroke Township for free, and Walker manages the distribution.

On a recent "box day" at Koner's house, Jenny Ambrozek came by to drop off her parcel and said, "I think the program's extraordinary ... It makes you appreciate what you have."

Isaac Shimsky-Agosto, 9, whose family participates in the program, said of his Pembroke family: "They don't have electricity, they don't have running water. Hardly any of them have cars. We thought it sounded like a nice thing to do."

Many Pembroke families send letters of thanks.

"I am so grateful for the food," one recipient wrote. "It always seems to come just on time."

Word of the program is spreading. Groups in Plano, Texas, and Birmingham, Ala., are planning to start Family to Family programs with needy communities. Students at a high school in Evanston, Ill., held bake sales to raise money to buy 60 turkeys, which were handed out Sunday in Pembroke. An inmate at the state prison in Attica sent Koner a $25 check, "since I am unable to shop."

Family to Family isn't the only effort under way to help Pembroke. Besides the food pantry at the Church of the Cross, which serves up to 500 families a month, there's a soup kitchen and clothing giveaway, Walker says. The state of Illinois is trying to improve the infrastructure, but, "We have no grocery stores, no gas stations, no laundromats. That's the reality here," Walker says.

But the boxes from New York — and the letters — do make a difference, he says.

"It gives our people a chance to know that somebody cares enough to send a box out every month to them and to drop them a line," he says. "It's not going to solve all our problems, but it does help."