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Shoppers checked out ripe tomatoes, melons, kale, cucumbers and other fresh produce in cardboard boxes at a small food stand on Yulupa Avenue, continuing a weekly tradition that’s been going on for 10 years.

In a no-frills, 240-square-foot shed, they picked up canned and dry goods, and items from two ordinary kitchen refrigerators.

“Would you like some sour cream and some eggs?” worker Jill Metz asked a customer.

But the pint-sized emporium is no regular food mart. Metz is a volunteer from one of the three religious congregations that run it every Thursday afternoon, and the 50 or so customers, known as clients, pay nothing for the bags and carts of food they take home.

It’s Elisha’s Pantry, named after the prophet venerated in Judaism, Christianity and Islam who multiplied 20 loaves of barley into enough food for 100 men. Founded in 2005 by Christ Church United Methodist, Congregation Shomrei Torah and Bethlehem Lutheran Church, it serves needy families in the Rincon and Bennett Valley area and has become part of their lives.

“It’s a big help,” said Nieves Palacios, a house cleaner who was picking up food for herself and four children. “Blessed to have it.”

Palacios, accompanied by her daughter, Bella, said she comes to the pantry when she runs short of money for food. “Yeah,” she laughed, acknowledging her children eat a lot.

Melanie and Les Baptiste, who work together as in-home caregivers, were getting food for themselves and two handicapped people they assist.

“Our clients really need the food,” Melanie Baptiste said. “I don’t know what they’d do without it.”

Terry Tamblin picked up three bags of food worth about $80, she estimated, for two families with a total of seven members. “This really makes a big difference,” she said.

The pantry, located next to the Methodist church, serves a segment of east Santa Rosa that includes Sonoma County’s wealthiest neighborhood with a median personal income of $69,000, more than twice the countywide level, according to a report last year by the Sonoma County Department of Health Services.

But Bennett and Rincon valleys also encompass the county’s 30th- and 74th-ranked neighborhoods out of 99 areas in terms of personal earnings.

“You’d be surprised,” said Dixie Offt, a pantry volunteer who lives in Bennett Valley. “There is a definite need.”

The Redwood Empire Food Bank sensed that need when it invited the Methodist church to open a pantry a decade ago. With the help of religious groups, soup kitchens, homeless shelters and other nonprofit groups, the Santa Rosa-based food bank depends on a network of 178 community partners to distribute food to 82,000 people a month, equal to about one of every six county residents.

“They know what people in their neighborhood need,” said Jean Larson, the food bank’s chief operating officer.

Christ Church United Methodist embraced the idea, retired minister Gayle Pickrell said, and joined with Congregation Shomrei Torah — which then shared the church’s facilities — to construct a simple storage shed. Pickrell’s husband, John Davenport, led the job. Bethlehem Lutheran Church quickly jumped in.

The three congregations now provide volunteers and $3,500 apiece annually to acquire food from the food bank, at low cost or free. Donations from Whole Foods Market and Bourdin Bakery augment the pantry’s stores, along with fresh produce from the Harvest for the Hungry Garden, also on the Methodist church’s grounds.

“It feels like a ministry that has been given to the church,” said Pickrell, who remains active in the congregation. “We’ve been given so much, and we are able to give.”

Stephen Harper, chairman of the pantry’s steering committee and a Shomrei Torah member, said the food program fits into the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam,” which means repairing the world. Each of three congregations takes a month to run the pantry, and Harper said he has never had trouble signing up volunteers.

Bennett and Rincon valleys are largely upper middle class, but residents who bought homes there decades ago, when property values were a fraction of the current level, are not all big earners, Harper said. Many of the pantry’s clients are single women over 60 who live on disability or retirement payments as low as $850 a month.

During the recession, the pantry gave out 85 to 90 bags of food each week. It now provides about 55 bags a week, just as it did before the economic slump, Harper said. Clients are supposed to be in need, but no questions are asked.

“We turn no one away,” said Offt, who also is on the steering committee.

Food is apportioned to clients based on the number of people they are feeding.

Funding from the three congregations falls about $2,500 short each year, which is covered by food drives at each congregation and at Herbert Slater Middle School. Once a year, Shomrei Torah members donate used clothing for the winter months.

Pantry volunteers say their work is rewarding, and clients seem to feel the same.

“Thank you, guys, have a lovely day,” Melanie Baptiste said as she wheeled away her food. “God bless.”

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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