Photo: A busy Belmont Food Pantry on Belmont Serves.
It’s nail-biting time for the Belmont Food Pantry.
With a little more than five weeks before the non-profit will be forced to move from its current home in a modular unit at the rear of Belmont High School, the pantry – which assists more than 200 residents with much-needed food staples and sundries – is scrambling to find a space to continue its charitable work.
“What we are asking we know that we need to come together as a community to provide this service to the people,” Laurie Graham, former Belmont School Committee chair, and a pantry director, told the Belmont Board of Selectmen on Monday, June 27.
“We’ve known since December and to solve this problem now is acuter with this short fuse,” said Chairman Mark Paolillo of the August 1 deadline.
The pantry will need to move as the school department is running short of classroom space due to rocketing enrollment levels at Belmont High and throughout the district.
But despite the best efforts of the town administration, houses of worship, non-profits and businesses, as of the last week in June, there simply isn’t a location of a similar size – about 1,600 sq.-ft. – to meet the pantry’s needs.
Currently, the pantry is open five times a month: in the mornings on the first and third Saturday of the month and on afternoons on the second and fourth Tuesday evening with an additional day on the last Sunday of the month at Plymouth Congregational Church on Pleasant Street.
Belmont residents can use the service twice a month to pick up canned goods, baking supplies, sundries and, during the summer, fresh vegetables from gardens run by volunteers.
While the Belmont community has been “very supportive” of the pantry financially and with food donations, “we need space,” said Graham.
David Kale, Belmont’s town administrator, said he had discussions with department heads on available space, but so far there isn’t any local site that could handle the pantry.
A recent walk through of the former Belmont Municipal Light Department headquarters adjacent to the Police Headquarters and across Concord Avenue from Town Hall, which three years ago was the pantry’s home, was deemed unavailable as the building has deteriorated over that time and would need substantial rehabilitation to bring up to code.
There had been discussions of using two empty storefronts near the intersection of Belmont Street and Trapelo Road adjacent to Moozies that are owned by developer Chris Starr or parking a trailer in the Beth El Temple Center’s parking lot. But both some with significant restrictions such as lack of running water and electricity and a small footprint.
“But while saying that, we’d love to have anything on a temporary basis,” said Graham.
With nothing available at this time, the pantry is looking at stop gap measures to continue service, including sharing space with pantries in Watertown and Arlington, although the Watertown space is problematic since they hand out bags of food rather than allowing residents select what they need which is done in Belmont.
Graham said there had been discussions by the pantry’s board of directors of possibly allowing the pantry become part of town government similar to the way Watertown runs its food service.
“There are pros and cons to this [approach],” said Graham including giving up the pantry’s non-profit status. The pantry could find a commercial storefront and pay market rent although that would mean fewer supplies for residents.
“But I think for us an issue is sustainability … and that means we need to have a place,” she noted.
Saying the food pantry serves “a very important need,” Selectman Sami Baghdady said he has reached out to several large property owners if there is any available storefront in an accessible commercial location.
“When I say ‘food pantry,’ everyone’s attention spikes, and there is a strong desire to help,” said Baghdady, saying he is now waiting for a call back to resolve the predicament, “sooner rather than later.”