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Food pantry steps in to help local people 'living on the edge'

Published: August 23, 2008   
Marilyn Lanford
Judene Kuszak and Zoe Allgood stock the shelves of the St. Vincent de Paul Society Food Pantry in Rogers Aug. 15. Food comes from parishioners as well as businesses and the food bank.

ROGERS -- According to the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank Web site, nearly 100,000 hungry people live in this part of the state every day. In Benton County alone, more than 7.3 percent of families and 10.10 percent of the total population live below poverty level.

It is estimated that by 2015 northwest Arkansas will have the largest population of poverty-level residents in the state.

In addition to these statistics, Benton County posted the state's highest foreclosure rate in June as reported by RealtyTrac Monthly U. S. Foreclosure Market Report. One in 393 households in Benton County received a foreclosure filing or 2.9 times the state average.

This is a very different view of northwest Arkansas from the one often perceived by others around the state. To meet the needs of those in this area, food pantries are working overtime, coordinating and distributing food and other necessities.

Catholic parishioners are involved in the St. Vincent de Paul Society Food Pantry, located at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Rogers.

It had its beginning in a small garage across the street from the church in 2004.

Tony Howard, the food pantry manager, said, "We opened in December 2004 and served 50 families the first month."

In 2006 a house on the property became available and now the pantry serves more than 500 families, or 2,100 people monthly.

Currently the society has 100 volunteers working in the pantry. One of these volunteers, Jean Pappas, does the scheduling, recruiting and coordinating of those who come to help.

"Everyone has an assigned job but people tend to pitch in and do what needs to be done. It is a team effort," she said. "We don't turn anyone away. We channel them because we cannot meet the needs of more than Benton County. They have to be residents of Benton County. Proof of address is required. But we don't turn them away. We will give them food and then give them information about where the pantries are in their own area."

Howard said, "The needs of the hungry are the same, but we are seeing people who have never had to ask for help before, either due to illness or out of work. Many are single mothers with children trying to support their families on their own."

Pappas agreed with this assessment.

"The people's needs are pretty consistent," she said. "Who comes has probably changed. With the economic downturn and gas going up, we are seeing people the last six months who had never expected to need this kind of help, who are just living on the edge and something has pushed them over.

"They really struggle with coming here. They are the ones who, when they get to the front door, want to tell you that they have never been to the pantry before and why they are here. They tell us their husband has just lost his job or someone is ill or 'I have never done this before.' They just look very uncomfortable. They are very appreciative too. They are the ones who thank you profusely. Sometimes you never see them again. It was just a one-time thing."

Doris Clements, another pantry volunteer, said some home health nurses will come by on their way to work to take food to their patients.

She said, "When they do home visits, they take it with them. You would never think that northwest Arkansas would be influenced by this economy, but you see it here."

One of the problems in the beginning was the need to stabilize the food pantry's inventory. At the beginning of the month, the inventory was adequate but toward the end of the month, the volunteers started to run out of supplies.

"You can only ask the parishioners for so much," Pappas said.

Parishioner support includes the "Black Bag" donations collected during Mass once a month as well as the brown paper bags with a list of needed supplies that were handed out once a month at the weekend Masses.

As a result, many area businesses have come on board to assist with donations.

This is partly because of federal legislation, Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, approved in 1996. The law protects businesses from any liability when donating to a non-profit organization. Major contributors that currently donate to the pantry include Harp's Food Stores Bakeries, Panera Bread, Wal-Mart, United Way, as well as the Northwest Arkansas Food Bank. Items are either donated or sold at a minimum cost from these groups.

Another important aspect of running an operation this large is the computerized system that was developed 18 months ago. The program, designed solely for the pantry by one of the parishioners, helps the staff to keep track of the records.

"At the end of each month, it will tabulate all of our numbers," Pappas said. "So we have very good numbers. In the beginning, a busy day out in the garage we would serve about 11 clients. A busy day in here we now serve 30 to 40 families. Our average is about 25."

Clements said the need has slowly increased since the beginning of the year.

"It is running about 500 families a month. They are allowed only one visit a month," she said.

The pantry is opened in two-hour increments on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday to accommodate the families.

One of the staples of the food pantry this time of year is a 1.3-acre garden in the rear of the property, which first began in 2006. Tom Rohr, a volunteer, manages the produce from the community garden along with 15 other volunteers.

"It is a pleasure to see folks get this fresh produce," he said. "We realized right away that it was God's providence to have a community garden. Our big crops are green beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, okra, watermelons, cantaloupes, corn and an herb garden."

Like many of the other volunteers, Rohr has seen the increased need of those families coming to the food pantry.

"What happens in the food pantry is that the people who use the pantry are pretty invisible to the rest of us," he said. "We live in our subdivisions -- we certainly don't see them. People who have needs like that are not out and about where you would see them. If you talk to the people who work in the pantry, they are surprised that Benton County has that kind of need.

"These families have high overhead, get caught by surprise and lose their cash flow. I know they are seeing a lot of people right now who are new -- people who never imagined that they would need the food pantry."

Rohr and the other volunteers in a three-day period picked 15 bushels of green beans.

"We had 20 beds of onions and they all came in at the same time," he said. "Things seem to come in when they need a lot of food. Right after the green beans came in, I was told that 100 people came in right after that. We try to pick a lot on Monday and Thursday; that way it will be there for distribution on Tuesday and Friday. This is the best ministry our parish could have because it exposes the poor," he said.

This ministry also gives the volunteers a new perspective too.

"I really discovered that (the garden) has instilled in my heart how people today have forgotten how to grow things. There is a real sense of a throwback to another time when people had their own gardens and grew their own food. It is a lot of work but also a lot of satisfaction in that," Rohr said.

One of the volunteers in the pantry, Jason Ruiz, moved to northwest Arkansas from Chicago to help his father who was ill.

"My car broke down and I was looking for work at the time," he said. "I found the food pantry by accident and I decided to get involved with it. Since then I have received nothing but blessings."

A young father of four, Jason and his wife, Jessica, are expecting a baby in October. Now he is working for himself, which gives him more flexibility to continue to volunteer.

"One of the reasons I got involved with the pantry is that I have seen a lot of necessity in the Hispanic community," he said. "Everywhere I go, I try to encourage Hispanic people to join in and help themselves. By helping the pantry you are helping your community."

Another program that is separate from the food pantry but is managed by the St Vincent de Paul Society is their financial assistance program for those families who might need help with utilities or rent. The society provides a phone number to call so that volunteers can meet with the family or individuals to determine their needs.

Dr. Lisa Lowe, president of the society, said, "Two volunteers will meet with the family in the home after the initial contact to see what they need. If we can help, we will pay the bill directly to the utility company or landlord."

Howard said, "We are so blessed to have so many volunteers and the church support. We are so proud of the parish and the many who support this ministry and answer the call of our Lord to help the hungry."

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