By Karen Marcus
In November, Foothills Unitarian Church raised an impressive $4,404 for the Food Bank for Larimer County! The Food Bank is a non-profit organization that strives to support stability in people’s lives through hunger-relief programs. Each year it provides food to more than 37,500 people in need in our community.
Foothills supports the Food Bank in another important way: by running the Food Bank for Larimer County Mobile Pantry two Sundays per month in the Foothills parking lot. The Mobile Pantry has been in operation for over a year, and Foothills was the first entity to set one up (the second was Discovery Fellowship Church, and we hope there will be more to come).
Rebecca Parish heads up this effort, and I asked her for details about this highly successful program. Here’s what she had to say:
KM: Can you describe the variety of people who need this service?
RP: We see quite a few senior citizens, who commonly tell us that they’re living on a fixed income, and also dealing with rising housing costs and medical expenses. The result is that once they’ve paid for rent and utilities, there’s little left over for food.
We also see single mothers with their children. Most of them are working to provide for their families, but just can’t earn a large enough income to support a whole household. Food from the Food Bank helps them save on their grocery bills and make nutritious meals. One woman shared that she has just enough to pay the bills and feed her family, so she only comes through the food line at certain times of the year for grocery savings, which helps her to afford extras — like presents during the holidays, or school supplies and clothes at back-to-school time — or to make ends meet when an unexpected expense, such as a car repair, comes up.
This way, she feels she’s leaving more food for those who really need it, but the reality is she’s exactly the recipient for which the Food Bank exists! However, most people want to be independent and self-sufficient, and use such services as little as possible.
We also see some college students who eat inexpensive meals to afford college here. The Food Bank provides them more beneficial foods to eat. Additionally, even some families who have two working parents struggle to get by as the cost of living continues to rise.
There’s a perception in America that assistance recipients are all on welfare and don’t work. We don’t find that to be the case. Most of them are working, but just don’t make enough money to pay the bills. Or they’re working part-time because they’re in school so that someday they can afford to not need any assistance.
KM: What is the biggest benefit for recipients of the Mobile Pantry?
RP: One intangible benefit is feeling their community cares about them. The primary concrete benefit is that it simply helps recipients have enough food to eat and afford groceries! Most Mobile Pantry events include eggs and yogurt, sometimes packaged meats, and generally there is plenty of fresh produce. Some recipients are eating food for the first time that day when they come to our afternoon distribution.
The Mobile Pantry sometimes includes a “special treat” that appeals to kids because so many households with children come through the line. It could be cookies, fruit roll-ups, animal crackers, or whatever treat that happens to be available that week. For those who are just trying to put food on the table, it’s something they wouldn’t usually spend money on, so the kids get really excited to have it.
We don’t know the whole story of many of our clients — we hear little bits and pieces — but generally all the clients are very thankful for us being there and doing this. I don’t think any of them know that the church pays for the food (produce costs us nothing, but we pay a low rate per pound for the other food we distribute). They view it as exactly the same as going to the Food Bank warehouse up north or down in Loveland.
However, many of them tell us that they aren’t able to get to the Food Bank warehouse for a variety of reasons: lack of transportation, working during Food Bank hours, etc. For the roughly 90-100 households that come to us for food, 50-60 visit only our location, despite our events only being held twice a month! This means that — although each household is eligible for two shopping visits per week from the Food Bank program — the Mobile Pantry is their sole source of Food Bank assistance.
This is exactly the gap the Food Bank was trying to fill. They suspected many food-insecure households weren’t accessing the Food Bank’s services simply due to logistical issues. So, we are a success! The leadership at Foothills and our many volunteers are thrilled to help our neighbors in this way. And the Food Bank looks forward to the creation of more Mobile Pantry locations — such as the one recently started at Discovery Fellowship — to extend their reach.
KM: Do you have any other anecdotes about people who have been helped by this service?
RP: One elderly lady comes with her two young grandchildren to every Mobile Pantry. She is largely providing the care and housing for these children because their parents can’t. She’s on a fixed income and isn’t getting any financial assistance to provide for these kids, so she’s struggled to do so. She has expressed her thanks many times for us doing this work, because otherwise she doesn’t know how she’d keep her grandchildren fed. She’s making life work for her grandchildren, and they seem happy and healthy, and are very polite. I’m so glad they have her.
KM: How long have you been acting as coordinator, and what is your favorite part of that role?
BP: I’ve been the coordinator for a little over a year. We’ve grown from a small team of four to a dozen leads who, in pairs, can successfully set up, manage, and tear down one of our Mobile Pantry events. We’ve gone from a handful of volunteers to nearly 200 that have helped at one time or another. And from under 20 household recipients served at our very first “Food Bank @ Foothills” to 109 at our recent December 10th pantry! I’m so grateful for this lead team and the many dedicated volunteers that make it all come together so nicely.
My favorite part of the Mobile Pantry is that it’s an opportunity for multi-generational and family volunteering. My family and I really enjoy working there and meeting our food-insecure neighbors. I also really love that I’ve had an opportunity to get to know more Foothills members and their families when they come to volunteer. We have senior citizens working next to teenagers almost every time. It’s a very positive atmosphere where everyone is really happy to be there and that comes across to the recipients. Many of them have commented on how welcoming we are, and some have even said they “feel like royalty.” A couple of clients have become volunteers, themselves, because they want to give back to something they appreciate so much. The whole event is really heartwarming.
KM: Is there anything else you’d like to share about the Mobile Pantry?
RP: The Food Bank is able to much more effectively get quantities of food for each dollar than we as individual consumers can, even when we buy in bulk at places like Costco. So, if you have the choice to buy a case of soup for $10, or give the Food Bank $10, giving them the money is going to put more food onto the tables of food-insecure households. The Food Bank also needs and depends on volunteers in order to get more food out to our community. If you’d like to volunteer at our Mobile Pantry or at a Food Bank for Larimer County facility, your help is welcome and appreciated.