By Yadira Betances
---- — HAVERHILL — Catholic Charities has closed its food pantry which operated out of the Unitarian Universalist Church since 2001.
"We had to make a tough choice," said Virginia Doocy, director of Catholic Charities of Merrimack Valley. "After making an assessment, we realized we don't have enough money to hire more staff and we wanted to move on and do some other work."
Suzanne Ouellette, creative services manager for Catholic Charities, said, "Like every nonprofit organization operating in this economic environment, we are continuously evaluating how we can have the greatest impact on the communities we serve with our limited resources."
Open Hand Pantry distributed supplemental groceries Tuesdays and Wednesdays to 60 to 80 people. In addition to volunteers, Doocy said the pantry was manned by a part-time staff member and a supervisor. Catholic Charities received the food from Merrimack Valley Food Bank as well as local bakeries, companies, parishes and food drives. Members of the Universalist Church where the pantry was housed, collected several bags full of groceries for them on the first Sunday of the month.
"We had a lot of community support. We were happy to do it, it was a matter of the resources we had, but we couldn't do everything," she said.
Doocy also said there is an interest by other groups to reopen the pantry.
"The local community was invested in it. While people will miss coming to our location, there are still places to go for food in the community," Doocy said. "They know it's going to be less convenient for them, but most will manage to go to another pantry."
Catholic Charities does not have a food pantry in Lawrence, but its Lowell pantry will remain open, Ouellette said.
Doocy said Lowell has a bigger pantry, which is opened four days a week, including one evening.
"Haverhill's pantry was a small operation with part-time staff and closing it instead of Lowell would make less of an impact," Doocy said.
"We have been in touch with several other food pantries in the area and are working closely with our clients to ensure they will receive the food assistance they need," Ouellette said.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the percentage of individuals living below the poverty level in Haverhill is 12.1 percent, compared to 28.6 percent in Lawrence, 7.7 percent in Methuen and 17.6 in Lowell.
The largest percentage of families living below the poverty line are single mothers with children under 18 with 39.6 percent in Haverhill; 52 percent in Lawrence; 22.9 percent in Methuen; and 44.3 percent in Lowell.
Haverhill residents facing financial difficulties can receive supplemental groceries at The Salvation Army, Sacred Hearts Church, All Saints Parish, and Calvary Baptist Church. There is also a pantry at Northeast Veterans Outreach for veterans and their families only.
Other food pantries in Haverhill said they are prepared to serve clients from Open Hand.
"The minute we heard, we began to get an adequate supply so we can have enough food for their clients," said Lt. Jeffrey Hardy of The Salvation Army. The Salvation Army distributes groceries Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays to about 25 families a week.
Since the Unitarian Church at 16 Ashland Ave., is a short distance from The Salvation Army at 395 Main St., and it's the only one on that side of the city, Hardy suspect many of the clients from Open Hand Pantry will go to them.
"We are ready to receive them," Hardy said.
Bill LaPierre who coordinates the pantry at Sacred Hearts Parish said he was surprised when he found out about the closing of Open Hand Pantry.
"It's tough out there, but we help each other," LaPierre said referring to the Haverhill Hunger Round Table, a group of food pantries and meal centers that work together sharing resources.
"We're really providing a big service. My feeling is that whomever comes our way, we're here to serve them," he said.
LaPierre said they receive groceries from the Boston Food Bank as well as local donations.
Ken Campbell, food coordinator for Lazarus House Ministries in Lawrence said he does not get many people from Haverhill looking for supplemental food at the pantry.
"It's unbelievable," he said of the closure of Open Hand Pantry. "With the needs that we're seeing, it's a tragedy that a provider of services is closing.
"We're still in a very tough economic environment and this puts more pressure on anybody serving the needy to make it,'' he said.
Although they are closing the Open Hand Pantry, Catholic Charities will continue to run its Healthy Families program at 191 Merrimack St., Suite 202. The program follows parents ages 20 and under through pregnancy, through the birth until the child is 3.
"We definitely still be in Haverhill through other partnerships we have made along the way," Doocy said. "It's very important for us to help young families as they start off."
Haverhill All Saints Church Rectory, 120 Bellevue Ave., Tuesdays 3 to 5 p.m. and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to noon. Sacred Hearts parish office, 48 S. Chestnut St., Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 8:30 to 11:15 a.m. The Salvation Army, 395 Main St., Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays, 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Veterans Food Pantry, 10 Reeds St., for veterans and their families, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Lawrence Lazarus House, 242 Hampshire St., Wednesdays Neighbors in need, South Congregational, 198 S.Broadway, 9 a.m. and Christ United Methodist, 207 Haverhill St. 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays Family and Youth Initiative, 112 East Haverhill St., Wednesdays 9 a.m. Boys and Girls Club, 136 Water St., 9 a.m. and Iglesia Adventista Del Septimo Dia 297 S. Union St., 10 a.m. Thursdays Third Baptist Church, 22 Warren St., 9:30 a.m. Fridays Methuen Methuen Arlington Neighborhood, Inc., 141 Tenney St., 10:30 a.m. Wednesdays