EMMAUS, Pa. — With one eye on the clock, Amy Kocis hustled around the small warehouse with her 3-year-old Shih Tzu, MoMo, tucked under her arm as she stacked cans and bags of pet food.
Outside, despite snow flurries and a biting wind on a recent Friday afternoon, a line of about 40 people waited, stamping their feet to keep warm. Some dragged folded shopping carts behind them from nearby bus stops. Others got out of dented cars, their dogs on a leash.
On the dot at 1 p.m., the doors to the Animal Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley flew open, and for the next four hours Kocis and a team of volunteers doled out pet food and listened to stories. The clients — all vetted as responsible pet owners in need of financial help — filled Kocis in on their pets' latest adventures and current health problems.
"For a lot of them, especially our seniors, their pet is their whole family," said Kocis, the food bank's president.
Launched in 2005, the Animal Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley is one of the longest-operating pet food banks in Pennsylvania. More than 300 families use the service each month, getting free food for their cats and dogs, or their "pocket pets" such as parakeets and hamsters.
Some clients find out about the food bank when they arrive at animal shelters to surrender their pets because they can't afford to feed them.
"It's sad," said Kelly Bauer, executive director of the Center for Animal Health and Welfare in Williams Township. "For the most part it's people who lost their jobs or had a change in their lives, and they don't want to surrender their pets, but they want to do what's best for them."
Bauer said she refers clients to the food bank. The shelter, which houses about 200 cats and 47 dogs, shares some of the pet food donated there to the food bank.
Approximately 7.6 million pets are surrendered to animal shelters each year. According to a 2015 survey by the American SPCA, financial concerns were a major reason that people gave up their pets.
People with a household income of less than $50,000 were most likely to "re-home" their animals because they couldn't afford to keep them, it found. While expensive veterinarian bills were the most common concern of respondents, 30 percent said access to low-cost pet food would have helped them keep their pets.
When people are feeding a lot of pets, the cost adds up quickly said Dick Bowman, a board member at Forgotten Felines and Fidos, a shelter in Germansville.
Bowman said he fields 40 to 50 phone calls a day from people asking for help with cats. When the callers share that they can't afford cat food, he refers them to the food bank or to certain pet stores that donate damaged bags of food.
"People take in stray cats out of the goodness of their hearts not realizing how expensive it can get," he said.
Dry cat food is always the most pressing need at the food bank, Kocis said.
The pet food bank grew out of another group trying to help people down on their luck — the soup kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Church in Bethlehem.
A 14-year-old Girl Scout who was volunteering in the soup kitchen noticed many people were wrapping up half of their lunches to take home to feed their pets. So, she organized a pet food drive for soup kitchen guests to earn a scouting badge. The service became so popular that it spun off and became its own nonprofit.
Now based in Emmaus, the food bank distributes food on the second and third Friday of each month.
"Some of these people can't even afford to feed themselves, but they're willing to stand in line for an hour to feed their pets," said volunteer Lulu Cramsey of Allentown.
Elder advocates have long recognized the benefits of helping older people keep their pets. Having a companion animal can improve mental health, psychologists say, and keep seniors more active.
According to a 2015 study by the University of Rochester Medical Center, patients over age 60 who had pets were 36 percent less likely to report feelings of loneliness. Researchers concluded that pet ownership significantly decreased feelings of isolation in older patients who lived alone.
That's no surprise to Michele Grasso, spokeswoman for Meals on Wheels of Lehigh County.
"We have clients who say they would rather starve than allow their pets to go hungry," she said.
Meals on Wheels in both Lehigh and Northampton Counties offer pet food to clients. About 15 percent of the homebound Lehigh County residents who use the meal delivery service take advantage of the pet service, which is funded through grants and donations, Grasso said.
"The program started because our volunteers were finding that so many clients were sharing their meals with their pets, which they consider their family," she said. "But we want our clients eating all of their meals, because that's what keeps them healthy."
In some cases, Meals on Wheels helps clients with veterinarian bills, Grasso said. The Animal Food Bank of the Lehigh Valley does too, by partnering with clinics that offer free or reduced rate vaccines and no-cost spaying and neutering.
To promote responsible pet ownership, the food bank requires proof that pets are up to date with their shots and also are fixed.
"If they're having difficulty feeding the one, we don't want them coming back and all of a sudden they have the mom plus eight more," Kocis said. "There is a pet overpopulation problem in this area and we can't be a part of that."
The pet food bank is open twice a month; its food comes from corporate and individual donors, pet food companies and big box stores.
As the first clients came through the door on that recent Friday, Kocis handed MoMo — who was dressed in a festive Christmas sweater — to a volunteer and got ready to fill orders. She said she was grateful to be able to help pets, who are sometimes forgotten in this season of giving.