Those less fortunate get food for Christmas

Citizens in need from all over southwest Wisconsin wait in line at the Second Harvest Food Bank’s Mobile Food Pantry in Gays Mills on Dec. 18. Over 151 families and over 350 people were served with this month’s distribution at the growing pantry. (Photos by Correne Martin)

This is the sign that appears in front of the Mobile Food Pantry.

Volunteers of all ages help out each month at the Mobile Food Pantry.

Prior to distribution to those in need, volunteers arrange pallets of food around the old Community Building in Gays Mills for the monthly Mobile Food Pantry on Dec. 18.

By Correne Martin
At Christmas time, many people hope for expensive gifts like digital tablets, jewelry, game and concert tickets, or a big trip to someplace tropical. Others concern themselves with how extravagant their home will be decorated for the holidays or stress about finding that perfect card to show off their family.

But how would it feel if you had to worry about putting food on your family’s table because you didn’t have enough money to buy groceries? What if the shelter over your head was a small, cold, rundown cabin you couldn’t afford to fix? What if you had no running water because your pipes froze and you couldn’t spare the cost of fixing them?

What if you had to make the decision between buying food or toys for your children this Christmas?

Now, imagine waiting in line for several hours, in the bitter cold, at the Mobile Food Pantry, to see if there would be enough food to take home to your family. Last month, at the mobile pantry in Gays Mills, there were so many people in line the supply ran out. Some people, whose families were depending on them, were turned away.

If you had to worry about affording the necessities, wouldn’t all the material gifts in the world seem a bit petty?

The fact is, there is a great deal of residents in our rural communities who are faced with the agony of these situations every day. Being homeless or simply being a part of the working class poor is not something you just hear about on the nightly news anymore. It’s here, in our own backyard. Some of the people we see at the local convenience store or at church on Sunday are struggling financially. Those issues that once seemed to happen only in the big city are in small town America.

About four years ago, the Second Harvest Food Bank’s Mobile Food Pantry started in Gays Mills. Second Harvest wanted a mobile pantry in that area and thanks to the local volunteers, it was made possible. The offering has improved in organization and size ever since.

The mobile pantry comes once a month to the old Community Building at 212 Main Street, usually on the fourth Wednesday of the month. Distribution is from 2 p.m. until the food runs out. Around 30 local volunteers organize the mobile pantry and sort and hand out the food.

In recent months, recipients have been standing out in the cold—with laundry baskets, buckets and boxes—waiting for their chance to take home between 50 and 70 pounds of food. Fresh and canned fruits and vegetables, two or three frozen meats, bread, milk and water, and other staples such as rice or noodles are regularly available.

“We’ve had as high as 173 households before (come to the pantry),” said Lorraine Fortney, Mobile Food Pantry coordinator. “I’ve never seen less than 100.”

In November, Second Harvest provided for 349 people in 149 households. Among those, 82 were children and 93 were seniors.

In order to access the food benefits, citizens must only self-identify as needing food assistance by initialing a registration sheet, provide the number of people in their household and name the post office that delivers their mail. They may come from anywhere inside or outside the county. There are also no formal income guidelines or eligibility requirements requested. Designees may pick up a share of the food for others unable to come to the pantry (by providing the patron’s household information).

“There are regulars, but we see new people every time,” Fortney noted. “We are a growing pantry and we want to keep growing. We want to help everyone we can.”

The most recent dispersal was last Wednesday, Dec. 18, just in time for Christmas.

On Mobile Food Pantry days, customers oftentimes line up outside around noon. The Second Harvest Food Bank semi arrives around 12:30 p.m. Typically, about a dozen pallets of food are unloaded and arranged around the perimeter of the Community Building auditorium. From then until 2 p.m., when the pantry officially opens, the volunteers strip the plastic from the pallets and sort the food so it’s ready to hand out to the patrons.

When the doors open for distribution, one or two volunteers are stationed by each pallet. Each patron takes a shopping cart (loaned by Sunrise Orchard for mobile pantry use) and makes his or her way around the room to pick up the food.

Though the distribution changes every month, December’s variety per household included two bags of apples, a bag of oranges, a bag of onions, a loaf of bread, a package of dinner rolls, a package of hamburger or hot dog buns, five pounds of pork steak, a half-gallon of lactose-free milk, a three-liter container of water, two bags of plain chips, a spaghetti squash, two cans of green beans, two cans of northern beans, a case of smoothies, a bag of Christmas cookies and a box of candy canes.

The food provided is donated to Second Harvest by places like Kraft Foods and Walmart stores that have excess products or items not selling on their shelves, according to Fortney.

Last Wednesday, 151 people (representing their families, for a total of more than 350 served) made it through the room in about 45 minutes, though technically, the mobile pantry is open for one hour, until 3 p.m.

One might think distributing food to the needy would be depressing, but the spirit in the room is actually quite pleasant. The volunteers and patrons engage in casual conversation as the food fills the carts.

“The volunteers are wonderful,” one middle-aged woman observed. Many of the customers seemed to agree. “They’re friendly and non-judgemental,” a young man added about the staff.

When asked why they give their time to serve those in need through the mobile food pantry, several volunteers said they enjoy being able to provide support for others—in the form of food and friendly encouragement. Since most of them are helpers in other areas of the community, it seems giving is just part of their nature.

“Some of these people brighten my spirits. They’re so grateful,” Fortney said during the Dec. 18 Mobile Food Pantry event, as patrons made their way through the line expressing their thanks to the volunteers by name and uttering “God bless you” and “Merry Christmas.”

“You go home from here and you feel really good about all the people you’ve helped out,” she added.

Those receiving the food represent all ages, all situations and many communities within Crawford, Vernon, Grant, Richland and Juneau Counties and beyond. They’re approachable, kind and humble. There are a few boisterous characters, but for the most part, they are shy. They come dressed in their warmest clothing. On Wednesday, the first man in line was a middle-aged man with a walker. He was wearing a one-piece Carhartt suit, and insulation was tucked inside to keep him warm. A woman about halfway through the line wore no coat, but only layers with a long-sleeved flannel on top. Another disheveled man didn’t look very warm, but he was pretty proud of his dancing Santa hat, which brought a laugh to everyone in the room. Overall, there was a mix of men and women, senior citizens as well as people in their 20s and 30s.

Opening up about his situation, a fairly clean-shaven, nice-looking man in his 30s said he had a wife, a 5 year old and an 18 month old at home. He said he was there in order to put food on his table, most importantly, for his children.

“The bills are always getting more expensive and this helps make ends meet,” he stated. “I have to look out for the kids.” He and the woman next to him, probably in her 40s, said the Gays Mills Mobile Food Pantry offers a greater portion and selection of food than anywhere else, and with the least amount of restrictions. They both said they’ve been attending the mobile pantry for months and have seen many of the same faces in line with them.

A tall, wary man next to them said he has been working on a goat farm, but doesn’t get paid for the job. “This really helps,” he commented. “Getting the essentials is good.”

A talkative, bearded, middle-aged man shared a bit more about his personal story. He said he once had a good-paying job in managing and sales in the Sparta area, where he also used to donate to food pantries himself. “Now, unfortunately, I’m on the receiving end. It’s karma, I guess,” he said.

He came down with throat cancer and was laid off from his job. Since then, he’s had difficulty finding other work because “they don’t want me on their insurance,” he said.

The man owns a cabin in the Gays Mills area, but his pipes froze around the beginning of December and he hadn’t showered or shaved in a couple of weeks. He said he’s been attending the mobile pantry to get food for himself since July and that he’ll go again next month.

“It puts food on the table so I can pay other bills. It’s helped ease the pain,” he explained. “The very first time I became aware of this, I knew I had to come because it would bring me some hope. We have a choice in life about what we worry about. You can either be in misery or do something about it by being positive and living like there’s always tomorrow.”

The man also talked about what he’d do someday, if and when he finds himself better-off. “I’ll give back again, in a heartbeat.”

At the end of last Wednesday’s distribution, once all the patrons passed through the line and the volunteers cleaned up, Fortney took a seat and sighed in relief. When asked how she felt, she spoke with emotion in her voice: “I’m exhausted but just so happy about all of the people we were able to help. It’s hard for someone to admit they need help, but for most of our patrons, it’s not by their own fault. People don’t take advantage; they’re here because they really need help.”

In this Christmas season, the Mobile Food Pantry is proof that there are citizens in this area in need of the basic necessities, such as food, water and shelter—things many people take for granted. Those who are more fortunate might see this as a reason to be appreciative of their luxuries and consider generous ways of helping out those struggling around them.

For more information about the Mobile Food Pantry, or to volunteer, contact Lorraine Fortney at (608) 735-4690 or Cindy Kohles at (608) 872-2184.

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