They gathered outside the door of the Haven From Hunger food pantry a good 15 minutes before it promptly opened at 10 a.m. on Monday.
Mothers with young children, old men and women and some of the city's working poor people clutched shopping bags or held onto their two-wheel carts. Waiting to greet them when the door opened wide was Alyse Barbash, the pantry's new director, two weeks after she assumed her new duties.
A steady stream of people received loaves of bread, plastic bags of potatoes, carrots and onions and plastic bags of canned goods and non-perishable food items. They also received some frozen meat, a cake donated by one of the city's supermarkets, juice and milk if they had children with them.
"I don't want to see anyone going to sleep hungry," said Barbash, who also serves as director of the Jewish Family Service, a food pantry that serves 22 North Shore communities.
As she looked at the tables loaded with food items to feed the hungry, Barbash noted it would be just enough to feed everyone who needed food that day. She said it usually takes the constant efforts of volunteers and truckloads of donated food and cash to feed the hungry from Peabody as well as Salem and Lynnfield on a daily basis.
Barbash said volunteers also cook and serve a dinner from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. and the food pantry is open each week on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. She said everyone is welcome to the dinners and no questions are asked.
"The community has been very generous and we hope the community continues to be generous," Barbash said.
Donations tend to be up during the holiday season, but Barbash said they typically decline after Christmas. What many people may not realize is that hunger never goes away and people who cannot afford to feed their families still need food in January, February, March and April.
The need to feed the city's hungry residents and people who live in Salem and Lynnfield has never been greater, Barbash said.
City residents can go to the pantry and use their cards to collect food items one day per week. Salem and Lynnfield residents are permitted to get food from the pantry once every 14 days.
On Thanksgiving Day, Barbash said the food pantry fed 60 people who would have gone without a meal otherwise. Barbash said Haven From Hunger plans to serve a Christmas dinner for the first time on Christmas Day that will feature turkey and ham and all the fixings.
That meal will be served from noon to 1 p.m. and the dining hall at the food pantry, which is located in the lower level of the Mason's hall on Wallis Street can accommodate up to 90 people.
Barbash said she worked on Thanksgiving Day from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. before she went home and had dinner with her family and helping those less fortunate always makes her feel good.
"I knew I had a lot to be thankful for," Barbash said. "I wake up every day and I feel good about what I do."
Barbash said that feeling of wanting to help others began about 10 years ago when she and her husband wanted to teach their then-young children about the importance of community service. After she volunteered at a food pantry for a few days, she decided to put her degree in social services and psychology to good use when the Jewish Family Service needed a new director.
She has also learned a lot about how the face of hunger has changed on the North Shore over the last decade. Instead of homeless people, Barbash said she continues to see more working poor people who simply cannot keep up with the increases in the cost of living.
When essentials, such as heating fuel and gasoline, spike as they did two years ago, it often proves devastating for families that live on a tight budget and they buy less food so they can pay other bills.
Barbash said food pantries like Haven From Hunger make a difference because they allow these struggling families to put much needed food on the table.
"It allows them to be able to pay an extra bill. It's money they would have had to spend on something else," she said. "Surprisingly, there are people in need everywhere and you'd be surprised. It could be your next door neighbor."
Barbash is blessed to have a dedicated corps of volunteers and full-time coordinator Paula Diaz, a former pantry volunteer who has worked full time there for about a year. She typically works a 10-hour day from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Like Barbash, she has seen her share of people benefit from the pantry and she has also seen some of those people give back to the pantry after their situations improved.
The food items that Barbash and her volunteers give out to people in need along with the evening meals served there contain much more than daily sustenance. They are also filled with compassion and hope.
"I love my job. I wouldn't do anything else." Diaz said.
There are several ways for people to support Haven From Hunger: Checks can be mailed to Haven From Hunger, P.O. Box 46, Peabody, Mass. 01960; food items can be dropped off any time between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., Monday through Thursday; People can also call 978-531-1530 if they wish to volunteer. They can also visit the group's web site at Havenfromhunger@aol.com.