People are helped by and help this community-driven ministry
February is National Canned Food Month. Canned goods are important to The Salvation Army because they provide the bulk of the items in Salvation Army food pantries, which are used to fill food boxes or bags for those in need.
“The need is always there,” Clarksville Salvation Army Capt. Mark Love said. “As soon as our food pantry looks full, a bunch of people come, and then we’re going to be in need again. God provides and then he provides the people who need it.”
Several Salvation Army corps in Kentucky and Tennessee discussed their food pantries and clients. They explained that the pantry generally serves people whose income is 130 percent of the federal poverty level or less (roughly the same distinction as for Medicare and other government assistance programs); however things are handled on a case-by-case basis and some exceptions may be made, like for a family that’s lost a job or has an emergency.
“Everybody has situations,” said Owensboro, KY, Salvation Army Social Services Director Kathy Corbett. “We take into consideration every issue and every problem. We have homeless people, people who are laid off, the elderly who don’t make enough money or make too much and can’t get food stamps. There’s a whole lot of reasons why people are hungry, and The Salvation Army takes all things into consideration. Everybody can come here to get food, regardless.”
Another problem Salvation Army food pantries have noticed in the last few years is an increase in the working poor. James Smith, the Director of Emergency Services and Pathway of Hope at the Nashville Salvation Army, said his two pantries see people who work full-time jobs that put their income too high for food assistance but not high enough to really sustain their families.
“The food pantry really helps so those individuals don’t have to make the choice: do I buy groceries or do I pay this bill or buy gas for my car? And if you don’t have the car, you can’t go to work; then, if you don’t work, you don’t have money, and you can’t pay your bills. The food pantry really helps to break the cycle.”
People who come to a Salvation Army food pantry must provide ID for themselves and their family members, as well as proof of their address and income. This lets The Salvation Army know how many people are in a family and what sort of income they earn, as well as whether they live in the area served by that food pantry.
Once they are approved, people are eligible to begin receiving food. Distribution amount differs by number of people in the family, and distribution time varies by Salvation Army. For instance, in Owensboro, Ky., families can go to the pantry every 60 days, while in Bowling Green and Richmond, Ky., it’s every 30 days (though there’s a limit of six visits a year in Bowling Green); in Nashville, families can visit the food pantry three times every six-month span, which they can spread out however they’d like.
Some Salvation Army food pantries are USDA pantries; others are not. This means the food they get either comes from a USDA program or it does not. Both Owensboro and Nashville are USDA programs, with Owensboro’s coming directly from the USDA and Nashville’s coming from Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee. Clarksville and Bowling Green, on the other hand, are non-USDA; Clarksville gets all its food from donations, while Bowling Green simply does not use the USDA food it receives for the food pantry (using it instead for its soup kitchen).
“We have been a USDA provider before, but we figured out after we did our first [monthly] mobile food distribution that we were really hurting more people by being a USDA provider, so we came off that list and started making those boxes without USDA items,” said Gordon, who added that there are about seven other food pantries in the area where people can also get food.
The mobile program she mentioned is in addition to the regular food pantry. It’s a program co-sponsored by Feeding America for residents of Warren County, where Bowling Green is. At the end of the month, anyone who hasn’t received a commodity box from the USDA yet can go to where the mobile program is and receive a box. There are also fresh fruits and vegetables, which will be added to the commodity boxes of those who are getting them or given alone to those who have already received boxes earlier in the month.
Stores donate fruit and produce, as well as meat and bread, to food pantries and programs like this. That way, while the boxes and bags of food clients receive will be full of plenty of canned goods (from fruit and vegetables to soups to meat and other protein) and other non-perishables, there will also be some fresh food.
“Our folks love that because in the summer, they’re getting watermelons, cantaloupes, grapes and strawberries – any kind of fruit you can possibly think of that they can’t afford to go out and buy. They really look forward to when we get those things,” Gordon said, adding that the pantry also recently received a donation of 16 pallets of potatoes – 10 of which were distributed within two hours.
“We get all different types of meat,” Smith said of Nashville. “We get beef, pork, chicken and turkey; we get seafood. You name it, and we’ve had it – from crab occasionally to steaks and ribs to pork shoulders and whole chickens.”
These types of things are luxuries The Salvation Army is grateful to be able to share, employees said. However, several of them noted, clients are grateful for any food they get.
“We hear a lot of stories and get a lot of calls from the people who say, ‘If it weren’t for this food pantry, we don’t know what we’d do for food,'” Richmond, Ky., Salvation Army Lt. Dominique Darby said. “It’s a great program to reach people. We have food, so we use it to reach that need in our community.”
And speaking of their communities, employees said local organizations, businesses and individuals are critical to their pantry’s success. Capt. Love said community donations are the source for the Clarksville Salvation Army’s food pantry.
“Sometimes organizations will do food drives for us,” he said. “Especially we have a couple mailings during the year where we target the food pantry, so we try to coordinate that with when volunteers ask to help; ; we suggest them to do food drives. Of course, Christmas is a big one too; they’ll call and ask what we need, and we’ll give them a list of the food we need that they try to fill.”
Corbett said Owensboro also has several community food drives, including the United States Postal Service’s Stamp Out Hunger National Food Drive, held the second Saturday in May. It brought the Owensboro Salvation Army 545 pounds of food last year.
“That drive is the best way we get food. Without it, we’d be in trouble because our pantry takes all of that,” she explained, before noting that the food box program’s stability comes from the community. “The stability comes from these big food drives we have throughout the year that help keep us in stock and provide as much as we can so families can make it stretch longer.”
In Richmond, besides the drives (including one by the Bechtel Parsons company that collects a literal ton of food), community members bring in donations regularly. Darby said they can drop them in a bucket at the thrift store.
And community participation at Salvation Army food banks isn’t just limited to donating supplies. Several corps said their food pantries are run in part or wholly by volunteers.
“We don’t have any one designated staff member to do food boxes,” Gordon said of Bowling Green. “Everything is run off volunteers. They make the boxes; they give the boxes out. Even the volunteers at the front desk are the ones entering them into Charity Tracker.”
She noted one retired man, a Salvation Army church member, is there four days a week. “He’s rearranging, making sure things are kept the way they need to be, making sure clients are served. He really makes it a great program. We are very blessed.”
Richmond has two volunteers who help with the food pantry, coming in once a week to prepare the bags in advance of distribution. One is an EKU student studying to be a dietician; with the knowledge she’s gaining at school, she can also help The Salvation Army with a new extra it’s adding to the bags: recipes.
“We’re trying to develop recipes that give them quick and easy ways to use the things they get from us so they can stretch their dollars,” Darby said.
In the end, Salvation Army food pantries are vital to the clients who need them. They are full of little items, but those items add up to big help.