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A turkey in every pot

South Boston News / December 19, 2013
They came for their monthly food rations but left with a surprise Christmas bounty — turkeys, 250 of them, along with Cornish game hens, groceries, books and puzzles for the kids, and bags and bags of cookies.

The food pantry at Main Street United Methodist Church — always a busy place each third Wednesday of the month, the regular distribution day — was doing peak business yesterday morning.

Some 300 people streamed into the church hoping to pick up enough food to make it through the month, but instead they carried away the makings of a holiday feast.

“Where else do you find 250 free turkeys and over 200 dozen cookies?” asked Main Street Methodist member Thelma Crowder as she scurried about the church building.

The Jane Jones Food Pantry — named after the late VEPCO home economist and Main Street Methodist member — has been giving out free food to the needy for three years now, but this is the first time the church has provided turkeys for clients’ Christmas meals.

The Rev. Ed Rigg, pastor of Main Street Methodist, credited congregation member Nancy Long with coming up with the idea.

“The Lord laid it on her heart to see that everyone got a turkey [for Christmas]. She started making phone calls and raising money to buy the turkeys. We didn’t have a plan three weeks ago, but she made it happen,” he said.

Long purchased the frozen turkeys (“If you’re going to give anyone a plug, I want you to give it to [Farmers Foods] Johnny Farmer — he gave them to me all for wholesale”) and spent the morning with her son and daughter outside in the church parking lot, handing out poultry from the back of a pickup truck. “Merry Christmas!” Long called out brightly as smiling recipients walked by.

David Barksdale, a Sinai resident and food bank regular, made a point of coming up to church volunteers to thank them for the holiday ration. The pantry, he said, is a welcome source of help for people such as himself: “They don’t never run out — they serve everyone who comes.

“You walk in the door and they’re always nice. They’re real good people — the best I’ve ever met. And I’ve met a lot of real good people,” Barksdale said.

He declared himself “blessed,” although food has gotten harder to keep on hand with recent reductions to his monthly SNAP allowance — better known as the food stamp program. Starting Nov. 1, the $104 he received each month for groceries fell to $94. But Barksdale said he is able to get by with the Methodists’ help: “I’ve got just enough,” he declared.

Rigg, pastor at Main Street Methodist for the past seven years, said the food pantry started three years ago, not long after the economy first plunged into recession. Participation has been strong from the beginning, but in the past year the pantry has almost doubled the number of households it serves — the result, he said, of more people learning about it through word-of-mouth contact, but also a reminder that times remain tough for many.

“There were a lot of people hurt by the downturn in the economy, and they haven’t recovered,” Rigg said. “Most of our clients are either the working poor or living on some kind of assistance, disability or Social Security, and some have no income at all, just food stamps. Anyone who has a hunger need, we will serve.”

One-third of the pantry’s clientele is made up of children; another quarter of food recipients are senior citizens, said Rigg. At first, the pantry clientele was overwhelmingly African-American. Over time, however, the mix has grown to include whites and Latinos.

Yesterday the church teamed with children — some clutching wrapped Christmas presents (inside were books and puzzles, said Rigg), while others pawed at bags and containers packed with Christmas cookies. “I asked the congregation if we could make enough cookies to give to everyone, and we came up with 200 dozen cookies,” said Rigg. “Everyone who walks through the door will get a bag of cookies.”

The church based the Christmas-week quantities on November’s client load — 676 individuals showed up the last time the pantry gave out food — and turned to the Central Virginia Food Bank for most of the purchasing, taking advantage of its steep discounts. (The Main Street Methodist pantry is part of the regional food bank network.) The turkeys and the Cornish game hens, 75 or so of the latter given out to clients living alone or in small households, were purchased locally at Farmers Foods.

Yesterday was a one-of-a-kind event, but the pantry stays busy throughout the year. Each month, volunteers give out staples such as spaghetti, pasta meals, beans and rice, canned fruits and vegetables and cereals. Peanut butter and frozen meats are added with the food allotments every other month, as resources allow. To provide turkeys for Christmas, congregation members had to dig a little deeper into their pockets. Just this past Sunday, the church raised about $1,000 to make yesterday’s giveaway possible, said pantry volunteer David Lawson.

Lawson, a retired teacher, sat behind a table yesterday with two other church members verifying recipients’ eligibility for the food handouts. (The Department of Social Services confirms households’ income information.) As he waited on clients, Lawson beamed that the pantry has been one of Main Street Methodist’s “biggest successes,” helping to meet a real need in a hunger-challenged community.

“All organizations provide some help, but we’ve been told by [people] that they can rely on us,” he said.

Rigg noted that Main Street Methodist receives help with the pantry from other county churches, not all of them Methodist, and together is part of a patchwork of local organizations and churches that provide food to the needy. Talks are under way to step up the effort: “We’re hoping eventually we can put together a coalition to pool our resources and better serve the hungry of the county.”

As dozens stood in line yesterday outside the church hall where food was being distributed, others took refuge from the morning chill inside the sanctuary. There, sitting in the pews, was Louise Waskey, accompanied by her sister and daughter-in-law. All three women depend on the pantry to get by; Waskey’s only income is her monthly Social Security check. With all her other expenses, “it’s hard to make it through month to month.

“I don’t know what I’d do without them,” said Waskey, 63. “Towards the end of the month, the groceries start running out. It’s been a great place to come to fill in the gaps.” With her income from Social Security, she makes too much to qualify for food stamps, leaving her with few options when supplies run bare: “It’s a few dollars too much to be in on that [SNAP benefits], but not enough to have groceries at the end of the month.”

The pantry’s third-Wednesday schedule is designed with people like Waskey in mind — those who need help week-to-week when money runs short. While many of the food pantry recipients live in close proximity to the church, others venture in from miles — from Nathalie to Virgilina, Scottsburg to Vernon Hill.

Prior to coming to South Boston, Rigg pastored in Rockingham County, where he was founder and director of the Natural Bridge-Glascow Food Pantry. Because Methodist preachers “move on,” Rigg is hoping — and expecting — that Main Street Methodist members will continue their efforts long after he has gone. It was, after all, the congregation that provided the impetus for the pantry, although Rigg, upon hearing the idea, advised that the church would “need to be more intentional about this.” And so it has been — the challenges of running the pantry are substantial, he said, but the rewards are more so.

“Jesus said, ‘Whatever you do to the least of these, you have done also to me.’ I tell my congregation this all the time,” said Rigg. “If we’re doing what God wants us to do, He will provide. And He has.”

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I always read THE NEWS RECORD online to keep up with some of the "goings-on" in my homwtown of SOBO...what a beautiful Christmas story this is; however, not at all surprising that it happened in South Boston. What a wonderful place in which to grow up!


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