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Many faiths feed the hungry at West Side Pantry

Consider it a functioning model of interfaith cooperation, a thriving example of how people working together toward a common goal can lead to friendship and mutual support - and can do some good at the same time. It’s the West Side Food Pantry, where on the fourth Thursday of every month, volunteers from B’nai Israel Jewish Center and the Islamic Center of Petaluma meet at Elim Lutheran Church - which hosts the pantry - to distribute thousands of pounds of food to people in need.

“Given the nature of our world, the two centers felt it would be good to demonstrate our shared values,” said Rabbi Ted Feldman of B’nai Israel, who originally initiated the cooperative arrangement with the Islamic Center.

West Side Pantry was started in 2009 by a Lutheran minister, Pastor Tim Kellgren of Elim Lutheran Church, who recently retired. Every Thursday evening, as many as seventy families arrive at Elim Lutheran and line up outside the pantry. They bring bags and carts for carrying food. A volunteer registers each guest, noting how many people are in the household. This allows administrators of the program to monitor how many people are being helped.

Members of St. Vincent’s Catholic Church take the first Thursday, while volunteers from St. John’s Episcopal Church and Petaluma United Methodist Church share the second. Members of Elim Lutheran Church work the third Thursday, while volunteers from the Jewish and Islamic Centers share the fourth Thursday. When the month includes a fifth Thursday, everybody shows up for “all-stars” night - Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Jews and Muslims.

“The volunteers usually arrive at about 4:45 p.m.,” said Stephen Collins, who coordinates St. Vincent’s Thursday night with his wife Judy. Volunteer workers in need of food are allowed to make their selections before the door is opened to the public. “We provide food to the needy starting at 5:30,” Collins said, “and are done, including clean-up, at about 6:15.”

The pantry serves what Collins describes as, “an interesting ethnic mix - including Anglos, Hispanics, several Fijians, and several Chinese.” While participants include a few people who are homeless, Collins said many are householders and many are employed, but are still finding it hard to make ends meet.

“When it’s our turn, our volunteers include Hispanic and Anglo folks, mostly members of St. Vincent’s Church,” Collins said. “There will usually be about 15 to 20 volunteers, including some students who are doing their community service requirement.”

West Side Pantry distributes roughly 2,000 pounds of food each week to families in need. A vital source of food for the program is Redwood Empire Food Bank. Pantry volunteers go to the food bank Thursday mornings to select and purchase food items at deeply discounted prices. The volunteers transport the food to the pantry and set it up on portable tables in St. Vincent’s recreational room.

Another important source is COTS, the Committee on the Shelterless, the city’s largest homeless service provider. The 29-year-old agency serves 135,000 meals a year, delivering 650,000 pounds of food to community members. However, COTS currently faces a possible loss of funding. The city’s $181.98 million draft spending plan proposes a $70,000 cut to COTS. CEO Mike Johnson has asked the city council to keep funding at the current $150,000 level for the upcoming budget cycle.

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