JOHNSONBURG — Many in the Johnsonburg area who rely on the Northern Elk Food Bank have empty cupboards after the borough booted the organization from its property last week.
On May 19, Johnsonburg Borough officially posted its property at 100 Main St. with an eviction notice, giving the food bank 14 days, or until June 2, to remove its property.
Jennifer Dush, a board member of the food bank, said the food bank has been in existence for 20 years, spending many of those years located in a garage on borough property.
In a press release sent out by the borough days later, it said it had received “numerous complaints regarding the Northern Elk Food Bank.”
The release added that, “Last week, representatives from the Borough met with a representative from (the local board of) FEMA, a member of Northern Tier Community Action Corporation, and a representative from the Northern Elk Food Bank regarding the conditions of the building. After the meeting, it was determined that it was in everyone’s best interest, including the Borough and the families who rely on the food bank to revoke the food bank’s permission to use the building.”
On Friday, the food bank was in a mad dash to relocate in time for its next distribution date. Borough crew members and an army of over one dozen volunteers showed up to help.
One of them was Diane Hurd, an older woman from Johnsonburg.
Hurd said she only received about $16 in food stamps every month and can’t make it without the food bank’s help.
“We live month to month. It’s (the food bank has) really helped us a lot and helped others a lot,” Hurd said. “We didn’t have it last month and we’re out of food already.”
When asked why this was happening, Dush said, “There’s a lot of rumors, but we don’t have any facts. Everybody’s getting the run around about whose decision it was and why that decision was made.”
Borough manager Mary Polaski declined to comment Friday about the complaints and conditions that led to the eviction.
However, Dush said the food bank has worked with the borough, hearing complaints about clients’ behavior and working to put guidelines in place to remedy them.
Dush added there is a certain stigma that some in the community carry against its clients, but that the food bank’s mission is to help people in need without passing judgement.
One Johnsonburg woman, who asked to remain unnamed, talked passionately as she helped to unload boxes at its new location on Market Street about the impact the food bank had on her life.
“Some people can’t work and some people just fall on hard times. They helped us for about eight months when our house burned down and now we’re here returning the favor,” she said. “This is just sad.”
Locked out the day of distribution, the nearly 200 families who rely on the food bank will go two months without its services. Dush is hopeful it can get settled into its new building in time to distribute food the third Thursday of June.
A further challenge is that the food bank’s funds are frozen due to unrest on its board. According to Dush, one of its former board members has provided no financial statements to the board in months and was in discussions with the borough.
As a result, she was impeached from the food bank for misconduct, according to Dush.
In an attempt to further understand the situation, the Courier-Express has filed several Right To Know requests with the borough asking for copies of the complaints filed, a copy of its lease with the food bank, and any correspondence related to its closing.
The food bank is supported by state and federal grants and community support, according to Dush.
Northern Tier Community Action Corp. is its grant overseer, as it is with all food banks in the Elk and Cameron county area. Calls to several of its employees and administrators Friday were unreturned by press time.
Through the generosity of Eric Detwiler, the food bank has found a new home on Market Street, where Shooters Bar was formerly located.
Detwiler recently purchased and is working to revitalize Anderson Brick Block, which spans nearly half the length of the east side of Market Street, a National Register-listed Johnsonburg Commercial Historic District.
Dush said the new space provides handicapped accessibility, is much bigger, and has running water.
With its bank accounts frozen, Dush added they are going to “start turning our pockets inside out” to make the transition happen. She asked for the community’s help to bridge the gap.
Dush and her husband have been volunteers with the food bank for 18 of those years.
When asked about why the food bank is important to the community, she said, “I love being able to change people, to lift their hearts up, to remove desperation from them and to show them there is some good in the world and a place that doesn’t choose to discriminate against them.”