Food Pantries Adapt To Challenges To Feed Area Families In Need

Anthony Wayne Junior High School student council members (from left) Sloane Fults, Layla Doyle, Sammi Taylor, Alyssa Clark and Mya VonLehmden gather around some of the 500 items of food donated for the Anthony Wayne Community Food Ministry. MIRROR PHOTOS BY KAREN GERHARDINGER
Zion United Methodist Church volunteers gather on the first and third Tuesdays of the month to distribute food to those who live in the Anthony Wayne Local Schools district.
Anthony Wayne Community Food Ministry volunteers take a short break from preparing bags of food for distribution on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month.

BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — Thanks to the generosity of the Anthony Wayne community, families who are struggling to make ends meet are able to put food on the table during the holidays and throughout the year.

The Anthony Wayne Community Food Ministry (AWCFM), an Anthony Wayne Local Schools weekend food bag program and Zion United Methodist Church’s food pantry continue to provide food on a weekly basis, despite some of the challenges in product availability and pricing.

“We’re seeing a lot more households come to us for food than we had previously,” said AWCFM president Ron Shoemaker, noting that what used to be 70 or 80 households has increased to 130 during the past few months. 

“The common explanation is that gas is costing more, food is costing more and rent is going up. That’s leaving, unfortunately, food at the bottom of the priority list,” Shoemaker said. 

The AWCFM serves anyone who qualifies based on household income, regardless of whether or not they live in the Anthony Wayne area. Some of those who are new to the AWCFM program have told volunteers that they previously qualified based on need but were able to get by without seeking help from a food pantry until the past few months, Shoemaker said.

“Now, with prices going up, they no longer have adequate financial resources to buy the food they need,” he added. 

The number of families seeking weekend food bags through the schools has also increased, noted volunteer Amy Barrett. Using food donated by area churches, businesses and individuals, as well as supplies from both AWCFM and Zion’s food pantry, the food bag program serves about 85 families a week – compared to 45 or 50 last year. 

“The economy is one reason, but there are people who are struggling and on the borderline. We’re able to help them, and that’s a blessing,” Barrett said.

Both Barrett and Anthony Wayne Local Schools’ social worker Rebekah Hrcka believe that the discontinuation of the federal free breakfast and lunch program offered to all K-12 school children during the pandemic has taken a toll on families.

“Many families got away from budgeting for breakfast or lunch, and it’s been a challenge for a number of families,” Hrcka said.

Zion has a long tradition of working with Whitehouse Primary School to support families and children in need and regularly contributes items for the weekend food bags. 

The church has been operating a food pantry for decades, focusing on those who live in the Anthony Wayne district, said volunteer Denise Longnecker.

During the pandemic, the number of people asking for help dropped but is slowly climbing back up to a few dozen.

“We have seen some increase in need and unfamiliar faces, but the numbers have not been as high as I would expect,” said Ron Myers, a Zion volunteer. 

With so many donations coming in, the supply of food is keeping up with demand, so Zion isn’t as impacted by the increased cost of food.

A donation box outside the church’s door is available for donations to be dropped off anytime, and it’s often full, said Longnecker.

“People have been great about donating,” she said.

The church is looking at ways to reach out to senior citizens and others to let them know they’re here to help, especially since Zion’s food distributions are on alternate Tuesdays from those of the AWCFM, Longnecker said.

Ed, a retiree who lives with his grandson, started coming to Zion about 10 years ago.

“It really helps me out. And if I get too much, I pass it on,” he said. “I like to come in twice a month and jibber-jabber with people.”

He appreciates any food he can get, but especially likes having cans of soup around for an easy meal.

Zion is always looking for certain foods, such as soup other than chicken noodle and vegetables other than beans and corn. AWCFM has seen a shortage of canned fruit and peanut butter, and the increased costs of meat and eggs have had an impact on the bottom line, Shoemaker said.

“We’re definitely spending more to fill the gaps than we used to three or four months ago,” he said. “At some point, we’re going to run low on money to fill those gaps.”

Pantry manager Bruce Meyer recently went to pick up fruit from the food banks and they didn’t have any, so he spent $1,000 just to have fruit to distribute.

“For a small organization like us, we can’t continue to do that,” Shoemaker said.

Money is the best donation, because it allows the AWCFM to purchase from the food banks to fill gaps and provide a healthy variety to all patrons, including fruits, vegetables, meat and dairy.

The AWCFM gets food from Toledo Northwest Ohio Food Bank at 18 cents a pound and Seagate Food Bank for free. Both of those organizations are experiencing fewer donations and that limits what food pantries can provide, Shoemaker added.

“The increase in traffic and a decrease in food available to pantries, in general, is causing a retooling. We’re rethinking how to acquire and distribute food,” he said.

Despite some of the challenges, all three organizations are grateful for the outpouring of support from the community, in terms of food drives, monetary donations, gift cards and volunteering time.

Among the volunteers are Sharon and Carl Barker, the “bread people” who for the past 16 years have picked up extra loaves at area bakeries to deliver to area food pantries. While health concerns have scaled their efforts back, the two are an integral part in providing food.

The faith community and area ministers have been incredible at reaching out to support the schools, especially with the weekend food program, said AWLS Assistant Superintendent Kevin Herman.

In turn, the schools regularly host food drives, such as one that the Anthony Wayne Junior High student council hosted last week, bringing in 500 items.

“The need is year-round. Getting into the habit of contributing to food banks is positive,” Herman said. “There are so many opportunities for gift exchanges – it’s nice to contribute to a food bank or charity in the name of a person.”

Students can volunteer after school during one of the distribution times. AWCFM holds distributions on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month from 4:30 to 6:00 p.m. while Zion holds distributions on the first and third Tuesdays from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. Others are welcome to help unload trucks or pack bags and boxes of food during the days prior to distribution.

“It takes many people to cover every aspect of the job to make it work smoothly,” Shoemaker said.

To donate food to Zion, visit the drop box at the church, located at 10926 Maumee St. in Whitehouse. For questions, email zionwhitehouseumc@gmail.com.

Food can be dropped off to the AWCFM, housed at Waterville Community Church, 8217 Dutch Rd., during office hours. Visit www.awcfm.com for details.

To contribute toward the weekend food bags, contact the schools at (419) 877-5377.

Volunteers are needed and welcomed for all three programs.

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