Food pantry usage increases

This graph illustrates the number of Clay County residents served by the Vermillion Food Pantry from 2009 through 2011. So far, the number of individuals seeking assistance in each month of this year has been greater – at times significantly more – than the trend in the previous two years. (Graphic courtesy of Vermillion Food Pantry)

The number of people served by the Vermillion Food Pantry has increased over the past several years, and the trend shows no signs of stopping.

"We served 2,400 people last year, and that's nothing to sneeze at for a town of this size," said pantry director Mary Berglin. "This year we have already passed that mark, and we're up to 2,500 people. And it is only mid-October. So, it's going to be a big year for us."

As of press time, the exact number of people the Vermillion Food Pantry has fed this year is 2,648.

For more than two decades the pantry has been housed at Trinity Lutheran Church.

Initially housed in the church's kitchen, the pantry has expanded its occupancy to three rooms – one of which is double-size – that contain a multitude of shelves, five freezers and two refrigerators.

"I'm thankful that Trinity provides this space for us," Berglin said. "Altogether we have about 92 staff. Nobody gets paid, including me, but that's the way I want it for now. Eventually, this is going to get so big that they're going to have to pay somebody to do this, because it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger.

"I've been doing this 22 years. When we started, one person filled the sacks in the kitchen, and one person gave away the food as people came who were in need," she said. "Then we just got too big for the kitchen."

The number of users continues to rise. This past summer the pantry saw higher numbers than ever before.

"In July we (served) 350 people, and I went, 'Wow!'" Berglin said. "We've never had those kind of numbers. Then in August it was 408."

In comparison, the Vermillion Food Pantry served 134 people in August 2009 and 213 people in August 2010.

To keep up with demand, pantry volunteers work varying amounts of time weekly or monthly picking up donations, organizing them on the shelves and packing them into boxes for single people, couples and families of four.

The boxes are then distributed based on the needs of the food pantry users, Berglin said.

The criteria by which an individual or family can accept food from the pantry is based on their income. The current requirement is that the household earn at a maximum rate of 185 percent of the poverty level.

That means a household of one would have to earn a maximum of $386 per week and a household of two would earn $519.

All kinds of people utilize the service that the food pantry provides, Berglin said.

"I have single-parent moms, I have single-parent dads, I have two-parent households with kids, I have seniors," she said.

Food pantry users are allowed to get food only once per month.

"Because we are a private food pantry, we cannot have people coming back every week," Berglin said.

Donations, of course, enable users to come back at all. Without them, Berglin said, "We would have to close our doors."

The Vermillion Food Pantry receives donations from a variety of sources, from individuals to groups to local businesses.

Two businesses that provide food are Godfather's Pizza and Pizza Hut, which donate unused pies from their daily lunch buffets, which are then frozen by the pantry for later use.

Jones' Food Center, Hy-Vee and Wal-Mart also provide a variety of foods and products, including bread, produce, meat and paper towels.

"They donate whatever they have that's getting too old (to stay on the shelves), but once you freeze it, it's going to be fine," Berglin said.

Beginning this spring, Wal-Mart has provided much of the meat the pantry receives.

"That was our biggest expense through the last five years," Berglin said. "So this has freed us up to buy detergent, cereal and canned goods."

A number of donation drives are held each year, as well, including a mail drive over Mother's Day/graduation weekend, a drive by Wal-Mart that takes place in September and Coyoteopoly in November.

The Coyoteopoly students also provided Berglin with an orange ribbon to wear, which promotes hunger awareness.

"The kids at USD who are doing Coyoteopoly are making them, and they're going to sell them at the Hunger Forum, which is coming up on Nov. 9, and probably other places on campus," Berglin said. "It's just to remind people in Vermillion that we are in a crunch."

Despite the higher number of users, however, Berglin said the pantry is "blessed" by the people and businesses who donate their time, money and products to help keep it going.

"This community really takes good care of us," she said. "But as I said, I don't know what's going to happen down the pike. Things have to turn around."

For more information about the Vermillion Food Pantry, contact Trinity Lutheran Church at 624-4442.

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