As Salem food pantry demand soars, a west Salem pop-up tries to fill the gap

Merri Lynch called a neighbor a few days before her usual volunteer shift at Marion Polk Food Share to see if she needed anything.

Her neighbor started crying, saying the price of canned tomatoes had recently doubled at her grocery store, and she didn’t know how she’d be able to afford them.

“It broke my heart,” Lynch said.

She said stories like that motivate her to volunteer at the food share’s newest offering — a pop-up food pantry in the parking lot of Northwest Human Services’ dental clinic in west Salem, just off the Northwest Edgewater Street.

The pop-up opened Oct. 7 to fill a need in the neighborhood following the closure of a longtime pantry that operated out of nearby West Salem United Methodist Church for decades. A new owner bought the building over the summer and said the pantry could no longer operate there, said Rachel Peterson, mobile pantry coordinator for the food share. 

The church pantry had served about 268 families per month, including many people living at nearby Wallace Marine Park.

West Salem in general has few food pantries compared to other parts of Salem, and nothing else was close to the Edgewater neighborhood. 

As people like Lynch’s neighbor contend with rising costs and are increasingly struggling to pay for groceries, local food pantries are continuing to see record numbers of visitors.

Marion Polk Food Share saw a surge in families visiting local pantries starting in March, with an average of 13,200 families receiving free food monthly through June, said Sam Tenney, the nonprofit’s communications manager. That’s up from an average of 11,500 families monthly in 2021.

Numbers have remained high since thanks to high grocery and gas prices, he said.

When Kristin Kuenz-Barber learned of the church food pantry’s closure, she thought she might be able to help.

She’s the strategic partnerships manager for Northwest Human Services, which provides medical and dental care for many low-income and homeless Salemites.

“We have so many food insecure clients and so many of them are struggling with food costs,” Kuenz-Barber said.

She reached out to Peterson, and the Friday afternoon food distribution was born. The food share delivers items to the parking lot, which volunteers set up on tables and pass out to those who stop by.

They operate at 220 Kingwood St. N.W. from 1-2:30 p.m. on Fridays.

Last week’s offerings included frozen chicken, as well as canned beans, rice, fresh peaches and dog bones for those with pets.

Peterson said they’re now serving about 20 to 25 families per week. They haven’t done much to publicize the pantry in its early weeks, aside from letting patients at Northwest Human Services know of its existence. 

Kuenz-Barber said Northwest Human Services hopes to sustain the offering for at least six months as the food share works to find a permanent indoor location for a new pantry, though their ability to do so will in part depend on weather for the outdoor location.

Peterson and Kuenz-Barber said they’re hoping someone in the neighborhood can step up and offer to host a new pantry. Northwest Human Services doesn’t have the indoor space or refrigerator space to host something permanent.

Lynch typically volunteers at the food share’s warehouse, but is now helping out weekly at the Friday distribution after Peterson asked her to come. 

She said she feels for people like her who don’t have room in their budget to pay increased food costs.

Her neighbor doesn’t have a car or driver’s license, so Lynch offered to bring her some food after her shift.

“I said, ‘Well, we have tomatoes at the food bank,’” she said.

Correction: This article was updated to list the address of the food pantry. The previous version listed the address of the nearby dental clinic.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.