Feeding the spirit as well as the body

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Local food pantries are being hit especially hard this year as the economic climate is sluggish in its rebound and people are struggling to make ends meet.

Janet Mills, coordinator of the food pantry at the United Methodist Church in Cassville, is well aware of just how hard it is for seasonally employed and other unemployed people and their families to survive the harsh winter months.

"We are seeing approximately 300 people each month at our walk-in pantry," Mills said. "We are also serving about 100 seniors through our Senior Box program and another 100 families with our monthly commodities distribution."

The walk-in pantry allows people to come in once a month to receive food, a large portion of which is donated through Walmart's Feeding America program, and obtain fresh fruits, vegetables, baked goods and other food items. The program is also supported through a variety of community donations, such as food drives and fundraisers.

The commodities distribution is a program sponsored by the federal government, and recipients of those goods are required to meet income-eligibility standards, as are seniors citizens participating in the Senior Box program.

"We get 100 boxes a month for the senior food program," Mills said. "The people that benefit the most from those are seniors on a fixed income, such as Social Security or a retirement program."

That program is subsidized by Ozarks Food Harvest and is contracted to continue indefinitely.

"We have seniors signed up for this program, and there is a waiting list," Mills continued. "So if, for some reason, the primary person can't come and pick up their box of food that month, we go down the list to the next recipient until they are gone."

Another factor Mills said influences people's decisions to approach the food bank for help is the economic impact of the rising cost of living and wage freezes by their employers.

"We are seeing about the same number of clients coming in each month. Although some of the frequent clients may have dropped off, there are newer clients coming in to take their places," Mills said. "There is a lot of poverty in this area. There are also a lot of seasonal employers around this area, and their workers will be out of a job until around April."

The food pantry receives a significant portion of help and resources through its partner organization, St. Edwards Catholic Church, and through community service volunteers who help unload trucks, pack boxes and distribute items to those in need.

"We can't say enrough about those volunteers," Mills said. "Community service volunteers have really changed everything. They have been awesome and we are tremendously appreciative of their help."

Another organization making the food bank a success is Walmart's Feeding America program.

"They have been an unprecedented resource for us," Mills said. "This program has allowed us to increase the frequency for clients from three times a year to every month. We have been blessed with all sorts of resources and we could not be doing this without them."

The food pantry at United Methodist Church in Cassville is always in need of volunteers, financial support and food items, but Mills said the organizations is expanding into other areas of assistance as well.

"There are things that food stamps can't buy," she said. "Personal hygiene products, toilet tissue, toothpaste, deodorant, diapers, household laundry and cleaning products and more," she said. "How can a person live without these basic items? We're working to stock products of this nature to help fill the gap that is left by food stamps."

The food pantry is open Monday through Thursday to the general public. A bi-lingual translator is also on hand to assist with language barriers. Commodities are distributed in mass once a month, as are the Senior Boxes. Income eligibility requirements are in place for those wishing to take part in those two programs.

"We are always searching for volunteers to give of their time and manpower," Mills said. "Unloading these trucks can be quite a challenge for older, retired volunteers. We are so blessed to live in such a caring and giving community."

But the blessings are two-fold for this organization.

"In addition to supplying basic needs for the body, we lend a listening ear to our clients," Mills said. "The resources we provide for these people in need play only a small part of the outreach. Sometimes the only thing a person needs is someone to listen to them. We nourish their bodies as well as their souls."

For more information or to volunteer, contact Mills at 847-2328.

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