Several hundred Montgomery County families are enjoying a Thanksgiving feast – and a deeper sense of community — thanks to an archdiocesan food cupboard and its benefactors.

Martha’s Choice Marketplace, the largest food pantry in the county, hosted a Nov. 23 and 24 drive-through holiday meal distribution for more than 400 households in need.

Each client received a turkey, along with stuffing, gravy, instant mashed potatoes, yams, corn, green beans and cranberry sauce. The portions also included a bag of fresh produce containing carrots, sweet potatoes, onions and apples.

More than 1000 families each month are served by the market, which is operated by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services (CSS) at its Montgomery County Family Service Center in Norristown, on the campus of St. Paul Parish (353 East Johnson Highway), one of five CSS sites throughout the Philadelphia area.

The outreach’s name recalls Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus, whom Scripture describes as providing hospitality to Jesus (Luke 10:38-42, John 12:2).

Prior to the distribution on Nov. 23, Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre blessed the food, which he described as “a sign of the love of Christ” mediated through the pantry’s staff and volunteers.

Martha’s Choice manager Patrick Walsh thanked some two dozen volunteers and benefactors on hand for the kickoff, noting that they “emptied themselves out here every day for their neighbors.”

Among the supporters present were several members of the Order of Malta, an international Catholic lay religious order that witnesses to the faith through medical, social and humanitarian aid.

The order was instrumental in transforming the pantry into a choice model market,

where clients select the actual foods they need and want, rather than simply receive a prepackaged assortment of staples. The grassroots concept was developed in the early 1990’s by John Arnold, a Michigan-based pioneer of food banks and author of “Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America.”

Previously, “clients would come up and we would give them a box, and there’s not a lot of dignity to that,” said the order’s regional hospitaller, Robert Macri. “It’s a good work, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t promote self-direction and choice.”

Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre (third from right) joined staff, volunteers and supporters of Martha’s Choice Marketplace for a Nov. 23 Thanksgiving meal distribution. The Norristown-based food cupboard, operated by archdiocesan Catholic Social Services, is the largest pantry in Montgomery County. (Gina Christian)

Through a $25,000 grant, the order furnished the pantry with refrigeration and freezer equipment that helped revamp the outreach.

Fellow order member Jeanne Raubenstine, a member of Corpus Christi Parish in Lansdale, said the shift assured clients “they’ll be taken care of with love, kindness and respect.”

Order members also donate significant business expertise to “build an operating paradigm and develop strategic direction” for Martha’s Choice, said Macri, a member of St. Patrick Parish in Malvern.

Along with individual donations of time, talent and treasure, parish partnerships are essential to Martha’s Choice and other CSS outreaches, said James Amato, secretary of archdiocesan Catholic Human Services.

“All of what we do in CSS involves partnerships, which enable both mission and Catholic identity to come to life,” said Amato. “Parishes are on the frontline, and they are the lifeline of the Catholic Church.”

Above all, said Walsh and fellow manager Eli Wenger, collaboration is vital to the mission of Martha’s Choice.

“It’s not possible with just Patrick and I,” said Wenger. “It’s all of you that make this happen.”

Walsh agreed, saying that “we like to explain what we do here as creating and building community through access to healthy food. … And that only happens because all of you are doing your part. We get a front seat view to the best of people every single day, and it’s a crazy blessing.”