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Food pantries adapt and expand

There are many people with “servant’s hearts” in Pearl River County, which includes those who ensure people get the food they need via food pantries and food delivery services.

At the First United Methodist Church in Poplarville, a small group of volunteers come together every Thursday to bag premade food items for local school children.

The Poplarville Backpack Buddies volunteers put packets of oatmeal, single serve mac n cheese and snacks like produce or rice crispy treats into the grocery bags at lightning fast speed. The foods are all selected based on whether a child can prepare them. A team of four packs and delivers the food to Poplarville area classrooms in about half an hour to ensure those children have extra meals over the weekend.

Some of those pre-made items have become harder to acquire as the pandemic impacts supply chains. Backpack Buddies of Poplarville has had trouble finding ramen noodles and single serve microwavable macaroni and cheese cups in recent weeks, said founder Carol Williams.

Williams was ordering the mac n cheese cups from Greer’s in Poplarville, but suddenly they became unavailable. Walmart’s prices for 12 packs of the item jumped from $8.99 to $38 online, so she had to hunt at Dollar Stores in town to purchase enough.

“You never know which one of your staples you’re going to have a problem getting,” said Williams.

In the past month two other food pantries, Brother’s Keeper Ministries in Poplarville and Crossroads Food Pantry on Highway 43 N., had trouble getting meat.

Food pantries typically buy items from food banks at a significantly reduced price. Brother’s Keeper Ministries can purchase some food at 19 cents per pound from Feeding the Gulf Coast, said Susan Fuller, a Board member at Brother’s Keeper Ministries. But much of the organization’s food acquisition has not changed with COVID-19, said Fuller.

Sharon Bonnercarrere, volunteer director at Crossroads Food Pantry, said the pantry has been able to supplement the lack of meat with items like canned chicken.

Although the pandemic sometimes made it difficult to acquire specific items, 2020 also brought more grant money and free food to the organizations to meet the need caused by job losses. Crossroads received several thousands of dollars in free food through the USDA Farmers to Families Food Box program.

“That gift went a long way in our community many months during the summer,” said Bonnercarrere.

It takes donations, collaboration and often grant funding to make sure food pantries can continue, but their most important resource is volunteers.

“We could not serve the community in all that we do without these people. They’re our greatest resource, and we’re always open to new volunteers that want to come in and help in any way,” said Manna Ministries Project Director Dixie Renault.

Manna Ministries is probably most well known in the Picayune community for offering free medical care to people who are uninsured, a service that relies on volunteer physicians, nurses, medical technicians and clerical staff. But Manna also delivers food to those unable to access food pantries due to a lack of transportation or medical conditions.

Shortly after the pandemic began in March, the nonprofit collaborated with eight churches and Highland Community Hospital to provide food to more people in Picayune, reaching more than 2,000 people in six weeks, Renault said.

In a more typical week, approximately 200 people receive food deliveries from the nonprofit. To accomplish that, a team of 15 dedicated volunteers package the food and drive it to recipients using their own vehicles and gas. While students on breaks or people in between jobs often temporarily join the volunteer ranks, a core group of food delivery volunteers has been doing the work for more than a decade, Renault said.

Volunteers often become attached to clients, said Fuller, who has volunteered at Brother’s Keeper for decades.

“You get very attached to the people,” said Fuller. “I’ve been here for 20 years. I didn’t do it full time until I retired. Some of these people I’ve known for 20 years.”

Sometimes clients also volunteer to help distribute food.

At Crossroads Food Pantry in the Whitesand community, the pandemic means clients now get those groceries at their car.

“What has changed for us is that personal connection…That is different, is the personal contact knowing that so and so has been in the hospital and how they’re doing,” said Bonnecarrere.

Crossroads has seen an uptick in clients, serving an average of 72 households per week, compared to 60 or 62 households at its highest point pre-COVID. Crossroads distributed 42,000 pounds of food to 5,238 people in 2020.

As the pandemic stretches into 2021, local food pantries have expanded the services they offer or the scope of their operations to help people impacted by the pandemic, something made possible by volunteer work and collaboration between different nonprofits and churches, along with financial support from local businesses and grant funding.

In August, Manna Ministries began offering assistance with utilities and rent to those who can document they lost jobs or work hours due to COVID-19.

Poplarville’s Backpack Buddies began delivering hygiene kits to Poplarville schools more frequently, and are hoping for enough funding to repeat projects like purchasing new shoes for those students.

Crossroads Food Pantry has received a grant from the Lower Pearl River Valley Foundation and Coast Electric to add insulation to their building and expand the freezer capacity. On Wednesday a new three-door freezer was delivered to Brother’s Keeper Ministries.

Many food pantries in Pearl River County are faith based and volunteers are optimistic they will be able to continue their work.

“Every time we start panicking, God provides,” said Debra Smith, Backpack Buddies Board member.