May 19, 2011

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They started lining up in the parking lot around 6 a.m. the second Monday in May. The doors wouldn’t open until around 11 a.m., but hundreds of Lee County’s senior citizens were waiting to walk through them and get a box full of food to help them through the month.

Brenda Childers, Lee County Cooperative Extension Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program assistant, said she’s not sure why they line up so early. If they are part of the program, their items are guaranteed each month. She suspects it’s partly the social aspect of the program that brings them together at that time. Regardless, they get much needed support in difficult financial times.

 “We’re doing this to supplement their income,” Childers said. “Maybe they line up early because they are afraid the food will run out; but it doesn’t. We have a lot of seniors not buying their medication, not having enough food at the end of the month.”

Childers said the extension staff takes advantage of the early arrival times by offering educational information about food safety, preparation and storage to program participants. They give recipes to the group each month, so senior citizens can learn to make something and learn to stretch their food dollars.

Lois Carpenter has been volunteering since the program began more than a year ago.

“It’s one of the most rewarding things I do in my life besides my church work,” she said. “It’s the most rewarding thing… not letting anybody go hungry; we are trying our best to get it out to everybody.”

Lee County Cooperative Extension Service organizes around 30 volunteers each month to hand out the food provided by God’s Pantry. In May, they passed out more than 12,000 pounds of cheese, green beans, apple juice, peanut butter, canned tuna, rice and cereal. Sometimes, the group receives fresh produce from local farms – this month, it was large heads of cabbage.

Lee County Cooperative Extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, Ted Johnson, said God’s Pantry approached his office about spearheading the program because of the organization’s reputation for volunteerism.

“That was one of the reasons that they wanted to come to us, because no other organization in this community… (has) that kind of consistent volunteer base,” he said. “This is just one avenue I thought that we could reach more clientele who traditionally are not coming into the office. So it has worked out pretty good.”

Johnson said senior citizens are an important group of people, in large part because of their fixed income. The monthly food distribution helps offset their needs and benefits them where they need it the most, he said.

Childers said grandparents are increasingly having to raise their grandchildren for a variety of reasons. Because of that, the program becomes even more important to these unique caregivers.

“They don’t have the money to feed those kids,” Childers said. “And the (kids’) parents are not giving them their food stamps or (other benefits). If they don’t know how to do something, I’m going to help them.

The seniors make their way through the line, and if they are unable to carry all their items, inmates from the county jail are there to perform community service and help them load their cars.

For more information about the program, contact the Lee County Cooperative Extension Service at 606-464-2759.