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Food pantries struggle to meet unrelenting demand

South Boston News
Volunteer Ellen Koch at the Project Care-for Food Pantry in Clarksville.
SoVaNow.com / November 21, 2012
It’s a sign of difficult economic times: Shelves are nearly bare at food pantries around Mecklenburg and Halifax counties, yet the needs of the clientele keep growing.

Things are so bad, according to Don Koch, who heads the Project Care-for Food Pantry in Clarksville, he fears it may have to close before the end of the year.

Pastor Edward Rigg, who directs a food pantry out of Main Street United Methodist Church in South Boston, does not face such a harsh decision, in part because of a hefty contribution from the Virginia Conferences of United Methodist Churches that should sustain the pantry through 2013. However, “donations are not keeping up with need, and the cost of food is out-stripping donations,” said Rigg.

He added that the Main Street United Methodist pantry is entering its busiest period — the months of December through February.

The two pantries together provided food for more than 4,000 meals over the past year.

Once considered a crutch for the homeless or the desperately needy, today food pantries are a source of help for a range of people, from newly graduated teenagers to the working poor to retirees. Riggs believes that at least 40 percent of individuals his pantry serves are under age 19, and another 20 percent are senior citizens.

He speculated that young people rely disproportionately on the pantry because the chronically poor and seniors have experienced hard times before and learned to adapt to periods when money is scarce. Additionally, the chronically poor are, most likely, already plugged into social services.

Working-class and young adults have less experience with hard times. These people often find themselves unsure of how to navigate the system or too ashamed to seek help.

Feeding America, the largest hunger relief charity in America, claimed in 2011 that nearly 15 percent of all households in American were “food insecure.” These families did not have enough food in the house to adequately feed every member of the household. Both Riggs and Koch think that number is much higher in Southside Virginia, citing a population that is, for the most part, less educated and suffering from chronic high unemployment.

“When I started here [about three years ago],” Riggs said, referring to his work with the Main Street United Methodist Church food pantry, “we served about 25 families a month, now we are up to nearly 200 families.” Koch agreed that the need has increased. These days the Project Care-for Food Pantry serves between 50 and 60 families a week.

This high demand has forced both food pantries to curb the regularity with which a family can obtain food. After all, Rigg says, pantries are supposed to be a supplemental, not a primary source of food. Project Care-for restricts families to one visit every three months. At the Main Street United Methodist Church, it is once each month.

The need for food is not limited to pantries, which distribute groceries from food banks, supermarket surplus and donated items from individuals who participate in church or school can drives. The number of people visiting local soup kitchens has also risen. Pastor Jean Harris, who runs the only soup kitchen in Halifax County, estimates she serves more than 100 plates of food each day at her Missionary United Soup Kitchen.

“In the past three months the number of people we feed has doubled,” Harris said.

Harris has been serving up hot meals two times a week for the past nine years. “It’s what I have to do, not what I want to do,” she explained.

Harris, who once was homeless herself, understands the needs of the people she serves. But, because there is so much pressure to feed an expanding population, she, too, has rules. The main one is “don’t come here drunk.” She said she “doesn’t want to take all that time [she spends 12-16 hours a day cooking] to help someone who don’t help themselves.”

As demand escalates and donations drop, organizers of all three programs worry about the future. Harris and Rigg rely heavily on the Central Virginia Food bank to stock their shelves. Rigg buys non-perishable foods plus milk, bread, eggs, and margarine from the Food Bank twice each month.

Koch said the Food Pantry in Clarksville does not use the Food Bank — he does not have volunteers who are able to make the drive to Richmond to pick up food, and there have been issues with the type of foods offered. Instead, the Care-for pantry relies heavily on local charities.

“If not for the Clarksville Ruritan Club we could not survive,” Koch says of the single largest donor to the food pantry. Other prominent donors included United Country Virginia Realty, local Boy Scout/Cub Scout troops, and the Buffalo Junction Post Office.

The Clarksville Lake Country Chamber of Commerce held a food drive earlier this year, but the food they collected went to the Central Virginia Food Bank, not the local food pantry.

Rigg’s Main Street United Methodist Church, for now, is supported by grants from groups such as Walmart, the Amelia Thrift Store and the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church, as well as by donations of food. He also is forming a loose coalition with several other food pantries in Halifax County, hoping to share resources and cut costs in order to continue serving people in the area.

Rigg and Koch expressed a desire to work more closely with local farmers to obtain fresh produce and with Hunters for the Hungry to obtain fresh meat. Hunters for the Hungry is a private charity that makes fresh game available to pantries and soup kitchens.

For now, they struggle to fill their shelves with donations from food stores and from personal giving.

A related problem is the loss of companies that historically have donated to food banks and food pantries. A prime example, one that Rigg is currently struggling with, is the closing of the Merita Bakery Thrift Store in South Boston, caught up in a company-wide liquidation by Hostess Brands, the maker of Merita products.

The bread store often donated or sold bakery goods at greatly reduced prices. “While most people are lamenting the loss of their Twinkies,” said Rigg, “I lament the loss of bread for the families in need.”

He also pointed to several cases of pancake mix the pantry had in stock: “It’s made by a subsidiary of Hostess. We’ll never have this again.”

As the holidays approach, these two food pantries and one local soup kitchen are looking for a big boost to their inventory to get them through the end of the year — at a minimum. Those interested in donating to Main Street Methodist Food Pantry should do so through the Central Virginia Food Bank website, feedmore.org.

In Clarksville, donors can give by calling Project Care-for at 434-374-3935.

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