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Ozarks Food Harvest’s Mobile Food Pantry™ Rolls to the Rescue

Written by Ozarks Food Harvest staff on December 20, 2007

It was 9:00 in the morning on a crisp 32 degree day when the people of Alton, Missouri and surrounding communities lined up at the Alton Community Worship Center, one of two Oregon County, Missouri food pantry sites.

While the pantry clients waited in organized lines, dozens of volunteers scrambled to set up pallets of food from Ozarks Food Harvest’s Mobile Food Pantry™ program, which utilizes an adapted beverage trailer to bring food to people in underserved areas with high poverty rates.

For the next three hours, 24 volunteers, including more than ten local high school students and four Ozarks Food Harvest staff members, packed boxes of food for 190 families, or 438 individuals, as they came through a line that wrapped around the Mobile Food Pantry truck.

The Oregon County Food Pantry has sites in Alton and Thayer, Missouri, and serves more than five percent of the county’s population – approximately 800 individuals each month.

Oregon County, with a poverty rate of 22 percent, is one of the top three poorest counties in Missouri.

Daisy Simmons, Food Pantry Coordinator said, “We are a small community. We don’t have very many jobs in our county. By the time people pay to drive to West Plains (Missouri) or Mountain Home (Arkansas), there’s not much money left for food.”

The Oregon County Food Pantry was the first of The Food Bank’s partners to benefit from the new Mobile Food Pantry.

Simmons said the Mobile Food Pantry truck helps supplement their government commodities and donations.

“I overheard one of our clients crying on the phone as she told a friend, ‘You know, we are so blessed, ‘cause we didn’t have any food, and now we got all this food from the food pantry,’” Simmons said.

David Scott, Pastor of the Alton United Methodist Church and St. Paul United Methodist Church said, “We are blessed to have sponsorships for the Mobile Food Pantry in Oregon County through July.”

It costs $200 to sponsor a “Mobile Food Pantry Day” to cover the transportation expense. Two staff members were awarded $100 each at a recent award ceremony, and combined their funds to sponsor this particular Mobile Food Pantry Day.

Another hunger relief agency Ozarks Food Harvest serves, The Shannon County Food Pantry, says it receives almost 100 percent of its food from Ozarks Food Harvest. Without The Food Bank, “some people in Shannon County would go without groceries,” said Millie Osburn, a staff member at The Shannon County Food Pantry. “There is no other way for some of them to get food,” she told us.

The majority of The Shannon County Food Pantry’s clients are elderly, and several volunteers take food to up to 20 different homebound seniors in the area each month.

The prevalence of poverty in their area, and the number of people who lack transportation are the reasons they were one of the first agencies to benefit from Ozarks Food Harvest’s Mobile Food Pantry™.

The Shannon County Food Pantry’s volunteers helped serve an average of 200 people at each Mobile Food Pantry™ trial in Winona, Missouri, a small town 17 miles from The Shannon County Food Pantry in Birch Tree, Missouri.

Millie Osburn’s niece, Alberta Conaway, a student at a Springfield technical college, volunteered at the pantry on her day off. Conaway grew up in Shannon County, and told us, “Most people around here are under the poverty level.” (In 2004, the poverty level was $18,800 for a family of four.) “Unless they leave,” Conaway continued, “there aren’t a lot of opportunities. People’s families are here, and they don’t want to leave.”

Residents told us that jobs are hard to come by in Shannon County; the few employers in the region don’t pay very well. We talked to Greg Voyles, the Winona Fire Chief, and city employee, who volunteers at the pantry when his busy schedule allows. He told us, “There’s the saw mill, which pays a little over minimum wage, and other than that there’s Wal-mart and gas stations.” Voyles said that Shannon County is one of the largest and poorest counties in Missouri.

Ozarks Food Harvest’s Mobile Food Pantry™, made possible by Rotary Clubs of Springfield and the Ridewell Corporation, has been so successful that the Rotary Clubs are already raising funds for the purchase of a second Mobile Food Pantry™ truck.

In fact, Ozarks Food Harvest’s Mobile Food Pantry™ program was recently recognized internationally – it was one of only two Rotary projects in the country to be profiled for Rotary International’s Video Magazine.

A Chicago-based film crew recently visited the Ozarks to shoot footage of the food pantry on wheels in action. The Food Bank’s newest project will be featured as an example of community collaboration across the globe.

The film crew shot the loading of the truck and the distribution of food to clients by Rotary and Ridewell volunteers. The crew also interviewed actual clients who received food and toiletries from the Mobile Food Pantry.

The finished production will be distributed to Rotary Clubs and their 1.2 million members worldwide.

Ozarks Food Harvest’s staff asked clients about their experience with hunger while they waited.

A 37-year-old mother told us, “Sometimes there are days that all my children have to eat is Top Ramen and that is stretching it very far.”

Theresa, age 50, said, “Without programs like this, I would go hungry a lot. I already have given up on clothes and anything special. I live on $500 a month and it’s not easy, so thank you.”

A 36-year-old client, Bill, wrote, “My wife is the only one working and we barely make it due to large medical bills. Our cabinets are almost empty.”

Perhaps one of the most enlightening comments came from Steve, 43, who told us he benefitted from the Mobile Food Pantry™ almost one year ago. He said just one week prior to that day’s distribution, he finally ran out of the “big bottle of detergent” that he received last year! “You people are a real blessing,” he added.

Ozarks Food Harvest is hoping Rotary International’s video will help bring the concept of a Mobile Food Pantry™ to other communities. Here in the Ozarks, the Mobile Food Pantry has already served a quarter million pounds of food since piloted in January 2007.