CEDAR CITY – After six years of providing up to 140 hungry families with food every week, workers at the TLC Food Pantry in Cedar City have had to make some tough decisions and scale back the amount of food each family can receive.
The pantry is largely run on grants, pantry director Mary Denman said, but the supplemental donations of cash and in-kind they usually receive have been dwindling, which leaves less to offer the families who depend on the pantry every week.
There is a no-judgement, no-questions policy at the food pantry, volunteer Tondra Castillo said; meaning, they have a simple sign-in sheet for patrons to leave limited information that is confidential, but there is no requirement to show proof of income, ID or any other documentation to prove that a customer is in need of food.
The sign-in sheet asks only seven questions: number of people in the household, age range, whether the household is a single-parent household, whether at least one person in the household is employed, name, zip code and ethnicity.
The only reason they even have a sign-in sheet is to track statistics for the U.S. Agriculture Department’s food program grants that help provide food to the pantry, Castillo said.
“We do want you to know that two-thirds of all of our numbers in this year are families that are working families,” she said. “And that’s a big deal to us – that we are serving a community that two-thirds of our families are working.”
It doesn’t matter what the reason is for the need, Castillo said, whether it’s an income situation or a fear of running out of food that is driving patrons through the door, the community pantry is happy to help everyone who asks for help.
“We give them a bag of food,” Denman said, “if they need a hug, we give them a hug, smile at them, joke around with them and send them out the door.”
Early every Wednesday, volunteers gather at the True Life Center and prebag food for the families who will be in that day to collect food. Each food bag has cereal; a vegetable; a can of fruit; and pasta, rice or mashed potatoes.
After collecting their bag of food, customers can choose a bread to go along with their items, and most recently, a bag of potatoes – a couple of months ago, it was fresh oranges.
“This is so minimal compared to what we were doing,” Castillo said. “Right now we’re just really, really short. We were doing the chickens and the cheeses and we were doing a lot more, but right now we just don’t have it.”
A tour through the pantry’s food storage room, complete with freezers, refrigerators and wall-to-wall shelves quickly explained why the food bags were so much smaller than pantry coordinators would like to offer.
One consistent source of food is the Utah Food Bank, Denman said. When they first began to receive food from the Utah Food Bank it was only supplemental, she said, but now it is their main food source.
Food drives have been successful in the past, Castillo said, but these days they are having to be a little more creative with their fundraising. For instance, there is a matching grant program through the Utah Department of Workforce Services that allows them to weigh the food that is donated to the pantry, she said, and they receive a check in return at the rate of 12 cents per pound.
They have even had customers return the good fortune when their personal situation that required the extra assistance changed for the better.
One woman brought the TLC Community Pantry 100 gallons of milk to return the kindness. Cedar City resident Nila Magnum said she chose milk, because it weighed 9 pounds per gallon and she knew it would give the pantry a good return on their Workforce Services grant from the state.
Wednesday through Friday this week the food pantry will be selling $20 vouchers for Pioneer Day fireworks, Castillo said. With each $20 voucher purchased in advance, she said, donors will receive $40 worth of fireworks when they redeem it at the Cedar City Wal-Mart fireworks booth; which is run entirely by volunteers from the True Life Center.
When the TLC Food Pantry started out six years ago, Denman said, they were excited to serve five or six families in a week. Today, she said, with the responsibility of helping nearly 140 families every week, the pressure is on when the food is gone.
First time, stay-at-home mother Marisol Vazquez said the small amount of food she receives every week at the TLC Community Pantry allows her to continue to stay at home with her newborn infant. Her husband works long hours in St. George as a construction worker, but money is still tight. Without the extra help, she said, she would have no choice but to return to work.
With tears in her eyes, Castillo said she was unaware that the pantry created such a significant impact in the lives of the people they served.
“Sometimes we focus on either ‘we don’t have enough’ or ‘this is all that we have?’ and we don’t realize that what we are being able to give to the families right now is making that big of a difference,” Castillo said. “I mean, when you tell me that a mom is staying home and being able to be there with a child, care for a child and raise a child versus having to go to work full time – just because of that little bit of food – I mean, that gives us a lot of hope.”
Over and over patrons said the same thing. The people at the food pantry are the nicest and most welcoming people they have ever come across. Whether it’s a welcoming hug or a smile and a handshake, the volunteers at the TLC Community Pantry make them feel like human beings and not beggars when they come for food help.
One of her biggest fears, Denman said, is having to turn away a family in need. A couple of weeks ago, that almost happened.
“About an hour before closing we gave out our last bag of food that we had,” she said. “I was terrified that a family would show up before we could pack up and leave and I would have to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, we are out of food.’”
Vouchers for the fireworks fundraiser can be purchased at the True Life Center or by contacting Tondra Castillo through Facebook.
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