For Mary Frances Goddard, serving the community through her work at the Fuquay-Varina Emergency Food Pantry is as close to a mission from God as it gets. With the help of her co-director Laeron Roberts, and her assistant Cynthia Ellison, and a whole myriad of volunteers, she helps feed over 650 families every month, coordinates projects for holidays and special populations, and even lends an ear for families who need to share concerns.
It’s hard to know where to begin. What DON’T they do at the F-V Emergency Food Pantry? Through the resourcefulness and kindness of many organizations in Fuquay-Varina and beyond, this small group of dedicated souls provides a service to the community that rivals the organizational zeal of a large corporation. Leaving no stone unturned, the Pantry staff searches high and low for donations, wholesale prices, and leftover farm produce daily, weekly, and monthly in its quest to provide healthy food to as many local families in need as possible.
The Pantry was started in 2001 as a joint project through several local churches and led by Bob and Chris Blackmon. The concept was fairly straightforward—to provide assistance with food to local residents who were struggling to feed their families. Mary Frances was the treasurer for the project then, but she and Laeron Roberts became the co-directors in 2003, when the Pantry was still a fledgling project. The group originally met at Becky Medlin’s real estate office and Medlin provided the push to get the initiative going and find the space the group needed to begin operations. Over the last 12 years, Mary Frances, Laeron, and their team have developed a program that feeds between 500-700 people every month, and launches special projects at various times during the year for specific populations or for holidays or school vacations.
The regular Pantry program offers food distribution to local families twice a week every week all year long. Each family can come for a week’s worth of groceries once every 30 days, and can come one time in between those monthly visits for extra produce and bread. Every Tuesday morning and Thursday afternoon, a line forms at the door of their facility on W. Academy Street and the parking lots fills with vehicles. Volunteers hand out food products, which vary each week based on what has been donated/procured most recently, and provide recipients with a friendly face and a complete lack of judgment of their circumstances. “Jesus never judged anyone,” explains Goddard. “If he could help the masses without judgment, so should we.”
In addition to the weekly distribution of food, the Pantry has created a number of special programs for struggling families that reach out to them when they need it most. The most notable are their Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas dinner boxes, which provide a full holiday meal for a family. For Thanksgiving, clients are given a turkey and a variety of holiday meal ingredients. Last Christmas, all the clients received hams in their holiday boxes.
All of this comes at a cost, however. The Pantry crew works tirelessly to find groups and retail operations that will conduct food drives or donate food items for the families they serve every week. “The willingness of this community to share is really amazing to me,” says Goddard. “I’ve lived in a lot of places, but the people in this area have a lot of heart and we have never run out of food because someone, somewhere always comes through with something at the last minute!”
The organizations that help with the Food Pantry’s mission are numerous, but a few of the notables are students at Campbell University; many of the local churches; the Boy Scouts’ “Scouting for Food” project; local elementary and middle schools; local grocery chains, the Town of Fuquay-Varina, and many businesses and individuals who donate food and cash. The Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina is a big source of food. Pantry volunteers go twice a month and bring back 1,100-2,000 pounds of food at a time to fill the shelves on W. Academy Street. It used to take 9-10 pickup trucks to make two trips, but now a local Sunday School class pays for a U-Haul truck to pick up the goods.
The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), a federal program, provides 30% of the pantry’s inventory through regular disbursements of surplus food, but the exact nature of the donation changes every quarter and sometimes the disbursements are helpful and sometimes they aren’t so much. But, pantry staff tries to find ways to use the donated food as best they can and find creative ways to secure the items they really need.
Other programs that the Pantry has initiated in recent years include the Summer Feeding Program, which provides an extra bag of groceries once each month for kids (May-August). This extra bag includes cereal, fruit, applesauce, beans, canned lunches, snacks, graham crackers, jelly, and peanut butter. The program is designed to provide extra nutrition for kids while they are out of school and unable to access the free and reduced lunch program. In 2014, the Pantry provided these supplies to 552 families. The Pantry tries to keep a steady supply of Ensure and adult diapers for their elderly and shut-in clients, and are always looking for donations of those types of items. They are also proud of their toilet paper ministry. Clients cannot buy paper products with food stamps, so paper products like toilet paper and sanitary napkins can sometimes be difficult for people to purchase on their own.
Farmers have been especially generous over the years. Mary Frances believes wholeheartedly that you “do the best with what you’ve got,” and sometimes getting fresh produce is a struggle, especially in the colder months. Gleaning fields was one way of getting sweet potatoes and a few other types of produce, but with the resurgence of gardening over the last couple of years, local gardeners have become a great source of free produce. Piney Grove Baptist planted and harvested a community garden and donated everything they grew to the Pantry this year, and the average number of local gardeners donating their leftover produce this summer climbed to 10-12 different sources. Local chicken farmers have been donating their extra eggs, as well, which has been a nice treat. Volunteers are a huge part of the Fuquay-Varina Emergency Food Pantry’s operation. The program would not be sustainable without their help, and they are always looking for more help, but Cynthia Ellison is quick to mention that not everyone who comes in looking to help makes a good volunteer. There is an application process and a chairman of volunteers who trains anyone interested in helping with their mission. “We have a wide range of ages, ,” she explains, “but there is a lot of physical work involved and confidentiality is a big concern here. We have to make sure that our volunteers can handle the range of issues we deal with and know how to be discreet about what they see and hear.” Volunteers can start as young as 14, with a parent, but most are currently active adults over age 55. Because the Pantry is a faith-based mission, volunteers offer prayer for anyone who requests it when they come for their distribution. There is also a prayer list ministry where clients can request prayer for themselves or others in their family. Volunteers also offer as much education as they can for their clients. Odd food items sometimes require some suggestions for use, and the staff often prints up sheets of info regarding ways to prepare the different types of food. Staff also tries to keep track of who is on what kinds of medication so they can counsel about foods and drug interactions when necessary.
The biggest challenge for the Pantry, especially heading into the holidays, is making sure they have enough food for their clients and managing their resources with food costs skyrocketing and the size of packaging shrinking. “One can of tuna used to feed four people,” Goddard says, “but it takes two cans to accomplish that with the smaller can sizes.” Food costs are up, and Pantry staff are constantly looking for great deals on bulk food and relying on the kindness of local residents to help fill their shelves. “Our other challenge is getting food to those who need it and can’t get here on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Goddard shared. “Volunteers help with that mission, but there is always more to do.”
For more information on the Fuquay-Varina Emergency Food Pantry and ways you can help them during the holidays and into 2015, call Mary Frances Goddard or Cynthia Ellison at (919) 552-7720.