Eating From the Food Pantry

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Kaye Bennett surveys the pantry offerings to choose what she will take home for her four days of eating from the South County Community Services (SCCS) selection.

By Kaye Bennett

Recipe tip: Tuna salad without lettuce, celery, onion, pickle or mayonnaise is, basically, tuna. And tuna, right out of the can, is pretty blah.

I made this discovery halfway into an experiment I’d come up with as a result of volunteering with South County Community Services (SCCS). One of my Monday afternoon duties there is to help fellow volunteer Sue Ripley distribute food from SCCS’s food pantry. After several months, I started wondering what it would be like to obtain my food that way and to limit myself to what those shelves had to offer. Here’s what I learned (in addition to the tuna lesson):

“Shopping” in the pantry for one person, I was able to get:

• 6 protein items (I chose hamburger, eggs, milk, tuna, and macaroni and cheese.)

• 4 fruit and vegetable items (My choices: one can each of green beans, corn, peaches and peas.)

• 2 grains (I got a bag of oatmeal and a bag of rice.)

• 2 “extras” (a can of tomato soup and a box of Jello.)

I did not take my items off the pantry shelves (that seemed wrong somehow), but purchased what I didn’t already have at home from Family Fare in Vicksburg. The cost of the food on my list came to a little over $20.

I tried to eat nothing but what was on the list, but I have to admit to cheating a little. I drank coffee every day. (Because it’s expensive, coffee is rarely donated to pantries.) I added a little mayonnaise (not on the list) the second day, to make the tuna more palatable. And I drank a glass of wine once (sorry!).

What did I miss? Fresh fruits and vegetables.

What else did I learn? As so often happens, I was reminded of just how lucky I am – not only because I have ketchup and coffee and year-round fresh fruit, but because right now I am in a position to donate and volunteer. Like anyone, I could someday become a pantry client instead.

Area Food Pantries

South County’s pantry is one of 25 pantry sites for Kalamazoo Loaves and Fishes (L&F), which serves 30,000 individuals in Kalamazoo County each year. At the SCCS site in 2016, there were 799 pantry visits, representing 242 households, says Drew Johnson, SCCS’s emergency assistance coordinator.

Deb Josephson is the services coordinator at L&F. She explains that the goal of L&F and its pantries is to provide enough food to last each family member four days. More than a four-day supply, it has been determined, would be more than an individual could carry and potentially more than some of the local pantries could store.

Most clients of L&F pantries, Josephson says, have other food resources to supplement what they receive at the pantry. For people who qualify, food stamps and WIC are available. However, there’s a waiting time of up to 45 days after people apply for such programs, so food provided by pantries may be all some people have to eat for that time. Johnson points out that some food stamp recipients may receive as little as $16 per month, so pantries are crucial to meet their needs.

The average client, Josephson says, uses the pantry four or five times a year, but people can come in as often as once every thirty days without a referral. With a referral from a community agency, they can visit once a week.

The primary source of funding for L&F is private donations, with additional funding from foundations. Food also comes from private donations and L&F’s association with regional groups such as the Food Bank of South Central Michigan. According to Johnson, half the 31,000 pounds of food distributed to South County families in 2016 came from local donors, with the remainder from L&F. The SCCS pantry also receives help from local supermarkets. Meijer’s SIMPLY GIVE cards bring in at least $10,000 per year, and Family Fare, in addition to donating an ongoing supply of bread and pastries, does a register scan that brought in $2,200 last year.

Josephson says the profile of pantry users has changed in recent years, thanks to economic challenges. “Since 2008, people who never needed help before now do,” she says. “It’s not that people aren’t working; they may have several part-time jobs.” But they are still struggling to make ends meet. “You need a car to get to work; you need a roof over your head. But food is discretionary, so they shave the food budget.”

Feeding hungry children is especially important. When school’s out, Josephson says, families need more help, because the one or two meals their children received at school must once again be prepared and eaten at home.

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