News : Warrensburg, Mo. News

The Food Center offers help to needy in community

Nov 20, 2009, 9:08 AM


The Food Center is staffed by volunteers; here Bob Blackman stocks boxes for some of the families that rely on the center's contributions.


An elderly woman holding a worn manila folder with a sticky note calls out to the small lobby full of people.

There are seven metal chairs and they are all full. Men and women are gathered nearby. They stand in the doorway and must move every time a full shopping cart leaves and returns empty a few minutes later.

The elderly woman, a volunteer, clears her throat and tips her head down toward the sticky note. She raises just her eyes, peering over the rims of her reading glasses. She raises her voice and tries again.

“Mary? Mary Jones?”

Just as she starts to return the folder to the heap of files, a middle-aged woman politely passes through the crowd. Clutching her paper grocery sacks, she pushes past a tall man with painter’s coveralls. She calls out to the volunteer, “I’m right here! I’m right here! I was waiting outside.”

Mary’s cheeks are pink and her forehead is moist. She fans herself with a folded paper sack and as she begins making her way to the volunteer’s check-in counter, she yields to a gray-haired, petite woman using a beat-down shopping cart as a walker.

Volunteers help

Behind her, a man carries crutches. Another volunteer, a jolly, stout man in his 50s wearing a Hawaiian shirt, meets Mary at the counter. He reaches for her manila folder, removes the sticky note and hands it to another volunteer, who briskly walks it to the other end of the building to another team of volunteers.

Mary puts her grocery sacks in a cart and follows the male volunteer. He leads her as she pushes her cart over the cold concrete floor. He is kind. She only responds to his questions with a nod or a humble, “Yes, please.” Mary doesn’t ask questions. She knows the routine.

This is not her first time at The Food Center.

Located at 137 E. Culton St., The Food Center is a non-profit agency whose purpose is to supplement the food supply needs of low-income individuals and families. Open only three days a week, it is staffed entirely by volunteers from the local community.

According to its Web site, more than 1,250 needy individuals are served each month. However, Shirley Albert, The Food Center coordinator, said that number has been steadily increasing over the past few years.

On average, The Food Center sees an increase of 30 new families a month. With these growing numbers, The Food Center must seek support from numerous donors and agencies.

Individual and corporate donors contribute substantially to The Food Center. In addition, The Food Center receives financial assistance from the United Way. These combined financial resources allow The Food Center to purchase food and hygiene products from local grocery stores in bulk quantities. Albert says that local grocery stores have been cooperative and have provided products at a reduced rate, when possible.

Donated supplies

The Food Center’s shelves are also filled by USDA commodities and donations from Harvesters of Kansas City. Once a month, a semi-truck arrives at The Food Center and volunteers unload pallets, crates and cases of food from these sources.
Conar Castle helps patrons fill out their paperwork.

The items range from staple foods such as rice, dried beans, peanut butter and canned vegetables to miscellaneous hygiene products.

Recently, several cases of name-brand toothpaste arrived at The Food Center, their boxes naked from a printing error. Often, due to these types of labeling errors, quality products are donated by corporations and find their way into the homes of needy people.

The Food Center receives donations from Harvesters for a flat rate of 25 cents per pound, regardless of the product. This fee is an administrative fee and pays for shipping and operating costs.

Food drives are another way that The Food Center receives support from the local community. Warrensburg public schools often hold food drives and donate the collections. University of Central Missouri academic departments, sports teams, Greek organizations and student clubs are also frequent contributors.

Individuals seeking assistance from The Food Center must complete an in-take session to verify eligibility. This process is completed in the Warrensburg Catholic Charities office, 118 Hout St. Clients must provide documentation regarding their family size, income and any disabilities.

Clients must qualify

The Missouri Department of Social Services Guidelines for poverty are used to determine a client’s eligibility. For example, a family of four must have a gross monthly income of less than $2,757 to qualify for assistance from The Food Center.

Clients must recertify every three months, with the exception of senior citizens, who recertify yearly. There is no time limit on how long an individual or family can receive benefits. However, most of the clients who receive food from The Food Center do not depend on the services long-term. Many use the food and hygiene products to help them through a situational difficulty.

“People’s health has a great deal to do with it,” Albert says. “Most of them have just hit a hard time, might not be a loss of job, maybe they are working but medical expenses and everything are just more that they can handle.”

The economy and the housing market have also had a big impact on the number of people seen at The Food Center. As foreclosure rates rise, more families find themselves facing difficult circumstances. The Food Center strives to meet the needs of all families, regardless of size.

“The volunteers in the office have mentioned that we’ve had a lot of big families,” Albert noted.

Extended families need help

Many siblings, parents, children, aunts, uncles and grandparents are now living together under one roof. “We’re seeing that more than totally new groups,” Albert explains. “At one time, we had a family of 13.”

Whether an individual or family, clients benefit from the efforts of a diverse network of volunteers. Typically, a local church will commit to staffing The Food Center for a month of Tuesday and Thursday hours. Saturdays are staffed with an assortment of individual volunteers.

Victoria Steel has been an active volunteer throughout her life and has been dedicating her time and energy to assisting The Food Center for eight years.

“I am proud to live in a society that provides social services, and realize that individuals have a responsibility and are needed to support that system,” Steel said.

In addition to seeing more of large families, Steel has noticed an increase in other types of clients as well. “Recently, I have seen more people from groups that I have not traditionally seen – college students, single-income households – people who had been getting by, but are now needing to seek some support.”

Facing challenges

Another volunteer, Dennis Sartwell, commented he has seen an increase in the number of clients who have jobs and still cannot feed their families. Often, volunteering at The Food Center is rewarding, but it can have a challenging side.

“There was one incident that happened with a woman who I knew fairly well. She was forced to come to the food center. She was so embarrassed that I was there. I just went up and hugged her and said how good it was to see her. We need to be aware of the fact that some of the people that come through don’t want to be there. These people are still human beings,” said Sartwell.

Compassion and respect are attributes that several volunteers demonstrate when working with clients. Victoria Steel talked about a unique client and the way in which a caring volunteer helped him through his situation.

“For several years, we had an elderly gentleman who supplemented his diet with small wildlife. He would often pass on cooking and preparation tips for squirrel. He and one of the volunteers, who had a home economics background, would tour the center and plan a menu around the catch of the day,” Steel recalled.

“A couple of years ago, a really nice thing happened,” said Albert, noting how volunteers receive gratitude from the clients. “We received a check from a man. He said we had helped him at sometime in his life and he was now working and successful and he wanted to make a contribution and it was for $2,500.”

What would help?

She shared another story of a young man who brings frequent donations. He told Albert that when he was a kid, he remembered going to a food pantry with his mom and he wants to help give back and make a difference.

What could make The Food Center better? The volunteers’ answers were different, but their minds were set on the same thing: improving The Food Center for the clients. Certain volunteers wish more nutritious food was available, as well as a nutritionist to volunteer to educate clients. Others wish for more volunteers to help make the building cleaner.

Shirley Albert is grateful for the amounts of donations, but urges people to call and coordinate their food drives with The Food Center, so that she can staff accordingly to receive the donations. The one thing that all of the volunteers agreed on was that they ache for the community to be more understanding.

Mostly, Albert wants people to slow down and remember that the clients of The Food Center are just regular citizens.

Albert says, “People judge too harshly sometimes. They think there’s nothing wrong with them, why aren’t they working. You can’t really judge people like that. You don’t know their circumstances.”

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