Food Pantry Celebrates 25 Years Of Service Helping Those In Need By Randy Dockendorf
Yankton Media, Inc. VERMILLION — As executive director of the Vermillion Community Food Pantry, Mary Berglin sees the faces of the needy each week. "We get a lot of single parents. Half the people we serve, at least one of the people in the household is unemployed," she said. "We get families who are going to school (at the University of South Dakota) in Vermillion. We get young people on Social Security or disability. It's a very wide range." But whatever the person's needs, the Vermillion Community Food Pantry has been feeding the hungry for 25 years. That quarter-century of success will be celebrated at 2-4 p.m. Sunday at the Trinity Lutheran Church fellowship hall, 816 East Clark Street. The afternoon will include cake and coffee, entertainment and tours of the food pantry. "It's just really exciting to be able to host the people in the community who have been so good to us," said Berglin, who has volunteered with the food pantry for 17 years. Sunday's celebration will feature music by David Olson at 2 p.m. and the Buckaroos from the United Church of Christ at 3 p.m. The Jolley JJ 4-H Club will assist with activities during the afternoon. In addition, chances will be sold on a red quilt made by Carol Anderson of Alcester. Bids will be taken on two new baby quilts and two new Easter baby sweaters made by Anderson's sister, Barb Reelfs. Berglin welcomes food or cash donations at Sunday's celebration, but those are not required. Instead, the afternoon provides a way of saying thanks to area residents for serving Clay County's needy. "This community has supported the food pantry. It has been absolutely astounding," she said. "We get no (government) funding, so we rely on the kindness of strangers." That kindness has gone a long way during the past quarter-century. The needs have risen dramatically, and so have the donations of cash and food items. Through it all, the cupboard has never gone bare at the food pantry, Berglin said. "For 25 years, we have never had to turn anyone away because we had no food to give them," she said. "We served 43 people our first year. Last year, we served 1,789 people in Vermillion and Clay County." While Clay County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in South Dakota, the number of people using the Vermillion Community Food Pantry climbed from 1,369 in 2007 to the 1,789 in 2008. The latter represents about 13 percent of Clay County's 13,500 population. The food pantry receives fruit, vegetables, bread and canned goods, Berglin said. The food bank also receives donated meat including venison, frozen chicken and hot dogs. "In 2008, we gave away 45,000 pounds of commodity food items," she said. "We don't know how much food is donated each year as it's not weighed." In addition, the food bank has given out 3,000 pounds of frozen pizza during the last 15 months, she said. All families seeking to use the food pantry must have a referral and food voucher from Social Services, Berglin said. She noted that those receiving government food assistance do not qualify for using the Vermillion Community Food Pantry. "We are the safety net for our community," she said. The food pantry is open from 1-4:30 p.m. Monday and Friday and from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Berglin said The food bank will open on an emergency basis if people need food between regular pantry hours. "Winter is always kind of busy, but the summer is actually the busiest, as hard as it is to believe," she said. "During the summer, a lot of people move around to get into better situations for their family. A lot of them, when they move, have fees that are expensive." While summer sees the most demand for the food bank, it also sees a drop in donations, she added. The food pantry initially served only Vermillion residents but now takes in all of Clay County, Berglin said. "That happened by accident. Social Services sent us some families who lived on farms," she said. "Then it dawned on us, we were serving Clay County. Now, we also serve Meckling, Burbank and Wakonda families." The Vermillion Community Food Pantry has been housed at three different locations in Trinity Lutheran Church during its history, Berglin said. "When we started, we were in our church kitchen at that time," she said. "It wasn't until we built the new church addition at Trinity that the pantry had its own space. We were in this little 10- by 12-foot room. We thought we had died and gone to heaven. It was wonderful, because we didn't have to share cupboard space with other activities in the kitchen." However, the activity outgrew the new space within 18 months, Berglin said. The pantry then moved into its current quarters at the church. "We give (Trinity Lutheran) a token amount for electricity, heat and phone for the year," she said. "We have volunteers, and they are drawing no money. All of our money goes toward buying food." From the very beginning, volunteers have played a key role in keeping the pantry running, Berglin said. "Helen Jorgensen, who is now 87 years old, was our first volunteer from the Board of Deacons," she said. "Helen and her husband, Roy, filled all the sacks of food, and our secretary at the church passed them out when there was a need." The pantry, which began as a church outreach ministry, became a non-profit organization in 1996, Berglin said. "When we incorporated, our board had to reflect our community, not just people from Trinity. So that's when we really got mainline churches involved," she said. "We have people from the country as well as from the city on our board. We now have 75 volunteers working with the pantry in many different areas." The pantry receives around $3,000 in government commodities, based on the number of people served, Berglin said. The rest of the need is filled by food and cash donations. Those charitable sources range from Scouts and students to families and fraternal organizations. Food drives are held around the community and county. "We are not funded by the city or the county. We are a privately funded community food pantry," she said. "We don't even use the United Way anymore, because the community supports us so well." The amount of support varies with each group or individual, Berglin said. "Some people bring sacks of food, some just one item at a time," she said. "We are just thankful for whatever we get." In recent years, the USD business school's Coyoteopoly organization has emerged as a major supporter of the food pantry, Berglin said. Professor Greg Huckabee oversees the effort, where students form a team and draw up a business plan for collecting food and cash donations. "Greg wants his students to learn not just about picking up food but to treat it as a real project," Berglin said. "Greg is really enthusiastic about it. I'm enthusiastic, and he‚s even more enthusiastic than me." USD students have also volunteered for the pantry as a form of community service, Berglin said. "We have one kid who started with us (while at USD), and he is now back for grad school," she said. "We are tickled to have him stock shelves and work here." Berglin has seen a form of payback by those who have used the food bank over the years. "It's really interesting to have families who came to our food pantry a few years ago, when they were having a financial crisis," she said. "Now, they are giving back to the food pantry to serve others in crisis. It's always really special to see it happen." As the food pantry marks a milestone Sunday, its board and volunteers plan to continue meeting the need, Berglin said. "We just put one foot in front of the other," she said. "It's inspiring to see that we are still here after 25 years."