Local food pantries hit hard by ‘tight’ economy
Danny Cantrell of Fairfield has experienced a couple of hard years, and said his trips for bread to the town’s emergency food pantry, The Lord’s Cupboard, has made an immeasurable difference in his life.
“I don’t know what I’d do without it some weeks,” he said.
Cantrell is homeless and has been staying with different friends for more than a year.
“Fairfield is good with helping people,” he said.
Cantrell lost his job two years ago and is now receiving help at Optimae Lifeservices, a behavioral and mental health service in Fairfield.
“I was taken out of the work force because of high anxiety,” he said.
Fairfield resident Sherri Schaffer also relies on the pantry after recent cuts to her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program payments.
“It helps me get food when I need it,” she said.
Aleta Mottet, a regular volunteer at the pantry, loaded up bags with loaves of day-old bread, sweet rolls and frozen pizza for Cantrell and Schaffer. They both thanked her before leaving.
Mottet said she’s seen more people coming to the pantry who are out of work in recent months.
“People don’t have jobs,” she said. “We’re seeing a combination of less resources and more need.”
The Lord’s Cupboard has found itself in the challenging position of trying to meet greater demand at a time when its main food supplier can’t keep up with the volume of food requested. Like many other food pantries across southern Iowa, the Lord’s Cupboard is spending more on food in order to help a growing number of people such as Schaffer and Cantrell.
The Lord’s Cupboard is one of 160 member agencies of the Food Bank of Southern Iowa, which supplies food for 14 cents per pound. While the food bank has maintained its low prices, executive director Neal Abbottt said they have 15 to 20 percent less food to offer members than last year.
The food bank, headquartered in Ottumwa, covers 13 counties including Jefferson and Van Buren counties. According to the bank, 23 percent of people in its coverage area has need for supplemental food assistance.
The food bank gets its supply from the national organization, Feeding America, which operates with donations from large grocery and food product corporations such as Walmart, General Mills and Kraft Foods.
“With the economy as tight as it is, they [corporations] are like the rest of us, they’re scaling back,” he said.
While the food bank is experiencing shortages across the board, Abbott said certain products have become especially hard to come by.
“We’ve noticed donations are not near as good from cereal makers like Kellogg’s, Quaker and Malt-O-Meal,” he said.
The food bank offers the same 14-cents-per-pound price to all of its agencies, plus 7 cents per pound to deliver products.
“We have the same price structure whether it is a T-bone steak, mac and cheese or hot dogs,” he said.
In Fairfield, the food bank supplies five agencies including the Lord’s Cupboard, Seneca Case Management, Agapeland Preschool & Child Care Center, Tenco Industries and New Life Community Church.
The food bank used to be The Lord’s Cupboard’s main supplier, but vice president Edith Perry said the bank began running out of the food the pantry needed last spring. Soon Perry began looking to Wal-Mart and the Fairfield Hy-Vee Food and Drug Store.
“We can’t get a lot from the Food Bank of Southern Iowa anymore,” she said. “I would say we’re currently getting a fourth of our groceries from them.”
The Lord’s Cupboard is an emergency food pantry serving Jefferson County. Needy individuals or families can visit once every three months for a week’s supply of food, and can come by once a week for a supply of day-old bread donated by Hy-Vee.
The pantry serves 70-80 families most months, according to Perry. But she said more families need its services due to the poor economy. In October for instance, the pantry helped feed 118 families, the most she can remember on record.
To make up for lost food, Perry has been buying twice as much from Hy-Vee, which will sell to them at-cost and delivers the food to them as well. Still, food costs significantly more than it did from the food bank.
“We’re being hit monetarily,” she said. “We’re not in danger of shutting our doors, but we continue to ask for donations because we don’t want to get to the point where we cut our services.”
Abbott said he believes other member pantries also are buying direct from grocery stores, but for those with less resources, it could be leading to rationing.
The Lord’s Cupboard volunteers, Mottet and Lou Hendrickson said they believe unemployment is driving the increased need at the pantry.
“We’re seeing some people who haven’t been in for two to three years,” said Hendrickson. “They’re back in a jobless situation.”
She said more families are visiting before three months have passed as well.
“If they’re really desperate, we help them out, especially with bread and meat,” she said. “That’s what we are here for.”
While the Lord’s Cupboard gears up for its Christmas box fundraiser to provide families with Christmas dinner and other gifts, the Food Bank of Southern Iowa has launched its own campaign, called Scan for the Holidays. Hy-Vee grocery shoppers can donate money on a Scan for the Holiday card at the cash register, or by purchasing a prepackaged bag of food. The program began Friday and is set to run through Nov. 22.
A few days into the program today, product manager Brian Graham said participation in the program has been poor, with only five people donating to the cause.
Manager of store operations Todd Guffey said while not part of store policy, helping the Lord’s Cupboard is a tradition at the Fairfield Hy-Vee. The personnel have assisted The Lord’s Cupboard for years, ordering food, donating day-old bakery items and providing the labor for delivery.
“This is a service we provide,” he said. “Every store has the autonomy to do what it sees fit to take care of their customers.”
Perry and volunteers said their clients rely on continued generosity from the community. While Mottet has seen a deepening need in the community, she continues to look out for signs of a recovering economy. Monday morning, she saw such a glimpse when a client came in to report he’d just found a job.
“He was really excited,” she said, “especially because he has children to support. It was a good feeling.”