As Heart, Love and Soul celebrates 40 years, food pantry confronts higher costs, more need

Heart, Love and Soul opened as a food pantry in 1983, when an economic downturn led a Niagara Falls prayer group to collect food for its neighbors in need.

As it celebrates it 40th anniversary this week, the food pantry has flourished into a full nonprofit hunger relief and social care campus on Ontario and Niagara Avenues – and the community’s need for help hasn’t diminished.

“There’s a growing food insecurity problem in our community,” said Mark Baetzhold, the agency’s executive director. “The high inflationary environment is contributing, but also there’s been a rollback of some of the public health benefits since the lifting of the Covid-19 public health emergency.”

In fact, as Heart, Love and Soul enters its fifth decade, it is facing an increase in need, a decrease in food donations and higher food costs. Last year, its dining room served 93,000 hot meals to those in need, and its food pantry supplemented roughly 600 households. During the first quarter of 2023, the need rose 30%.

“I think funding is always an issue in the nonprofit sector. Fortunately, Heart, Love and Soul has been blessed with a very supportive donor base in the past so we’ve been doing OK, but we have seen costs definitely increase,” Baetzhold said. “We have noticed that we’re getting less and less food donations. So we’re finding that we need to spend more on food.”

The center sees families with young children, people with disabilities and a number of elderly guests, as well as the working homeless and the working poor, whose numbers are rising.

“The wages that people earn in lower-paying jobs just isn’t enough to support families,” Baetzhold said. “Coupled with the high inflation, things are just really becoming too tough for people to manage.”

Nearly a quarter of Niagara Falls residents live in poverty. The city has a per capita income of just over $27,000, according to U.S. Census data.

In addition to the food pantry and hot meals, the center offers a mobile food truck and a community vegetable garden. Its expanded Daybreak Center is a one-stop center offering showers, laundry, haircuts, a foot care clinic and first aid nursing services as well as case management and referrals that help link community members to needed services such as housing. It has 14 social agencies on site and partnership agreements with 16 more.

The center has a staff of 21 people, and a stable of 50 to 60 regular volunteers.

“Our volunteers are wonderful. They’re a big part of creating the atmosphere and the environment that we want to provide for people,” Baetzhold said. “We really couldn’t do what we do without them. We have volunteers who come in every day to help in the pantry and to help serve meals and it’s a great blessing to us and all our staff.”

To celebrate its anniversary this week, the center has a host of activities scheduled for its guests and donors, the centerpiece of which is the unveiling of a therapeutic garden on site and a colorful mural on the side of the main building, depicting the Sacred Heart Church where its founders originated, along with paintings of plants, fruits and vegetables on the main building’s east wall.

“We’ve done 40 years of service and we hope that we’ll be around making even more of an impact for the next 40 years,” Baetzhold said.

Source: Buffalo News

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