Area food pantries seeing more need in communities

A larger demand for food at area food pantries are higher than in previous years. Officials believe high utility bills, unemployment and other factors are contributing to the increases. (Pioneer photo/Brandon Fountain)

MECOSTA/OSCEOLA COUNTIES — The winter season is posing yet another challenge to low-income and working class residents in Mecosta and Osceola counties.

While many people in the two counties are focused on making sure they are bundled up for the dropping mercury, the costs of colder weather have added pressure on those who are forced to decide between paying their heat and utilities bills or having food on the table.

While volunteers are always needed at area food pantries, Project Starburst in Big Rapids has seen an increase in demand for food, as well as requests for heating and utility assistance. (Pioneer file photo)

That demand for help with heating expenses is something Diane Long, director at Project Starburst, has seen since the beginning of October, when the state’s new budget began.

“There were a lot of changes (for assistance programs) at that point and it’s been really difficult for people to understand those changes,” she said, noting the agency doesn’t have funds for its utility assistance program as it had in previous years. “We’ve had so many calls to Project Starburst the last few weeks to see if we can help with utilities, but we have to send them someplace else.”

Long said the new system in place means there are some residents who discover they aren’t qualified to get assistance.

“People are struggling with their utility bills,” she said. “There are even seniors who aren’t qualified.”

Long said those requesting assistance must complete an asset test through the local Department of Health and Human Services, and it eliminates some those who are struggling and need assistance.

“We can’t help them with their utility bills, but we make sure to tell them to use the food bank so they have enough money to pay their utility bills,” she said. “There are a lot of people who are working who are not making enough to make ends meet.”

A rise in demand for food assistance has increased the numbers at the Reed City food pantry, said coordinator Burley Russell.

“We’ve had a lot of food drives, and we’re seeing a lot of canned vegetables come in and the meat supply is good,” he said, noting there’s a need for items like dish soap, laundry soap and toilet paper.

It has been a lot busier at the Reed City pantry, Russell said, seeing nearly 150 percent increase in clients from November 2017.

“We’re a lot busier and the numbers have continued to go up,” he said. “Last year, we were seeing about 30 each day for the three hours that we were open. This year, we’re seeing between 40 to 45 come in. We were open for three days for Thanksgiving and had just over 120 people come in.”

Along with heat and utilities being a factor for those seeking assistance, Russell said there are others who are laid off for the winter and there aren’t too many large employers in the area providing jobs for those here, forcing some to sign up for help at the pantry.

Volunteers are essential for the operations of the Manna Pantry in Big Rapids. Director Kevin Courtney said the demand for food has increased in the last couple of months. (Pioneer file photo)

“We’re usually busier in the winter than we are the summer,” he pointed out. “We’re doing what we can to help everyone. We’re making it day-by-day.”

Trying to help clients as much as possible, Russell said the Reed City Food Pantry will change its hours of operations. Instead of being open from noon to 3 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday each week, beginning Jan. 1, the pantry will only be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays.

“We’re actually going to be open longer than three hours each on Tuesday and Thursday,” he said. “We’re just trying to stay with the flow.”

Kevin Courtney, director of the Manna Pantry in Big Rapids, is seeing the demand for food items is up this winter.

“It surprises me a little bit,” he said. “You hear about all the good news about unemployment. What the case may be is a lot of working poor who have jobs that don’t necessarily pay that well.”

While there are people who are struggling to make ends meet, Courtney said an unexpected car repair or two could chew up their budgets and force them to have to seek assistance.

“I think that is what has happened so far,” he said. “Throughout the year our totals have been down, but the last couple months have come up rather significantly.”

Looking ahead to the rest of winter, Courtney said demand for food at the Manna Pantry typically slows down after Jan. 1, which he hopes happens again.

“We’d like to be out of the business,” he said. “We’d like to not have people out there who need our services.”

Courtney, as well as Russell, said having volunteers ready to help tends to be the biggest challenges they face, as food supplies and donations continue to come in.

Meanwhile at Project Starburst, Long expects the need and demand for food assistance to remain high in the months to come.

“If anything, it has been really high the last couple of weeks,” she said. “I’m sure with an extra bill for utilities and heat for them to pay, the only thing we can do at least to help is with food.”

Like other organizations and agencies, Long said they are always looking for donations of food or money.

“With money, we can usually purchase things at a better cost,” she said. “People like to give food. We’re still going though. We’re so thankful for everyone being so generous for what they do give to us. We’ve had several food drives and they contact us when they’re done. I don’t even have to ask. This community can be very, very giving.”

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Posted by Brandon Fountain

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