Westside food pantry adds services


They shop for food, pushing a cart up and down the aisles, selecting items to feed their families for the next several days.

Some had their income tax prepared. Or, if they are eligible for various programs through the state, they can have all the necessary paperwork readied so they can apply for those programs. They can even have their blood sugar checked.

It’s all in the one stop shopping at the Lutheran Social Services food pantry on the Westside at 2373 Sullivant Avenue, one of four that Lutheran Social Services operates that includes the Southside at South Champion and Frebis, Lancaster and in Caldwell in Noble County.

While continuing to serve clients with food, pantry manager Vicki Becker has brought in other services and made some other changes.

Last fall workers pulled up the old carpet and put down a new tile floor, painted the walls and made the two main rooms look more dignified, she said.

“We found donors who would help with the refurbishing. We’re working to keep it nice and clean and dignified for the families,” said Becker.

Becker, who has an associate degree in accounting and is working toward a bachelor’s degree in human services, has scheduled a social worker once a week to visit with the clients. Once a month a nurse comes in to do blood pressure screenings and check blood sugar levels.

“Some of the clients participate in the Benefit Bank,” she added.

Workers will help pre-qualify families for such services as health care and child care, and do the paperwork at the pantry so they don’t have to sit around and wait when they get to Job and Family Services and then discover they didn’t have all the proper papers, she said.

The Benefit Bank even prepares income tax forms for the clients, she said.

The pantry is open five days a week, serving 50 families a day. Most of donated food is delivered in trucks that arrive every other Thursday.

Volunteers unload trucks, uncrate the food, stock shelves, refrigerators and freezers, register the clients and shop with them.

Although the pantry is open from 1-5 p.m., people have to arrive by 4 p.m. in order to do their shopping.

“It’s not unusual to see people start arriving and lining up outside the door as early as 11:30 or noon,” Becker said.

Since Lutheran Social Services pantries operate as a Choice pantry, clients do their own shopping. Accompanying the client up and down the two aisles is a volunteer who has a guide to how many choices of each group on the nutrition pyramid the client gets.  

The amount of food depends upon the size of the family. Pantries strive to provide enough food for the family for three meals a day for at least three days.

Besides food, Becker tries to maintain a shelf of hygiene products, shampoos, toothpaste, cleaning products, pet food. Baby food, formula and disposable diapers occupy another set of shelves.

Clients like the shopping style at the Lutheran pantries and Becker feels good about it.

“Selecting their own food cuts down on waste,” she said.

 Before the Choice system was inaugurated, workers would select the food and box it, then hand it to the client. Often it would contain items that the family didn’t like or wouldn’t know how to use. The client’s file, both at FirstLINK and at the pantry, contains specific notations, such as food allergies and if the client or a family member is a diabetic.

And if Becker does get some unusual foods, she’s been known to slip in a few recipes on how to use it.

Clients appreciate a Choice type of pantry.

“It preserves their dignity,” she said.

Becker, and her assistant, Jan Edwards, are the only paid staff members of the pantry. All others who work there are volunteers.

“I can depend on them,” said Becker, adding she’d like to have more volunteers.

“There is always a need for volunteers,” she said, noting that she would like to have volunteers are who bilingual. Those are especially needed to work with the increasing number of Hispanics and Somali who are using the pantry.

The Franklin County Court system has provided her people who are assigned to do community service.

“A few have stayed on after they have met their requirements,” she said. “They come back, saying it has meant something to them to help others.”

While clients are shopping in one room, volunteers are in the other room, unpacking food, restocking shelves, cutting up cardboard boxes to send to recycling or saving the more sturdy ones to package food in for the clients.

Much of the food for the pantry Becker can get from donations made to the Mid-Ohio Food Bank. She can also purchase food, usually meat for eight cents a pound, “which represents a handling fee” she said.

She also accepts donations from the community. For instance, this past Easter, a nearby church donated 100 Easter baskets. Toys have been collected throughout the year and brought out at Christmas time.

Like so many other pantries during the current economic crunch, donations of both foodstuffs and money are down and the number of people using the pantry is increasing.

“It’s tough finding altruistic sources,” she said.

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