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If you give it, they will come: Friedens food pantry helps rural families in hard times

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 14, 2010 - For more than an hour, the people in need kept coming. A motorcade of new, middle-age and well-traveled minivans, SUVs, sedans and pickups -- the shiny clean and the paint-deprived -- inching politely through the village of Irvington, Ill., toward Friedens United Church of Christ, its sturdy steeple beckoning from the clear blue sky.

They began arriving hours before the scheduled 11:30 a.m. start, parking in line as they waited for the go-ahead to drive past the white frame church, where 31,000 pounds of free food waited. A semi from the St. Louis Area Foodbank had been unloaded, and dozens of volunteers swarmed around the pallets ready to serve the passing vehicles, their trunk lids up and hatchbacks open.

At the first filling station, drivers paused just long enough for smiling strangers to heft cases of vitamin water into their empty trunks and truck beds. Then they pulled forward to the next stop for grocery sacks filled with cartons of milk from a St. Louis dairy and a sack of staple items collected in a supermarket food drive. Down the line were cases of cereal bars, chocolate chip cookies for the kids, some fresh produce, frozen snow peas and sacks of potatoes.

The worst recession since the Great Depression may be nearing an end on Wall Street, but it looked far from over on Third Street in Irvington, as this village of 750 -- about 70 miles east of St. Louis -- welcomed residents from across Washington County struggling to put food on their tables.

It literally took a village to distribute the rations to nearly 150 households signed up for the event. Irvington's small police force, city workers and neighborhood watch groups assisted with traffic control, while dozens of volunteers -- many of them retired people who belong to local UCC churches -- did the toting and lifting.

"There is such a need for this right now," said Gera Sims, the mayor of Irvington as she surveyed the orderly procession. "It's wonderful that the church is doing this. The whole community has worked well together."

Participants received vouchers in advance of the event, so there were no questions asked, no explanations needed as the vehicles rolled past the church on this spring-perfect Tuesday before Easter.

Friendly hellos were answered with the most frequent comment of the day: "Beautiful day, isn't it?"

But only some were referring to the weather.

'Don't forget to smile'

The food pantry, which opened last summer in the old parsonage at Friedens United Church of Christ, is one of the 500 community-based programs in 12 Illinois and 14 Missouri counties served by the St. Louis Area Foodbank.

Pastor Stacy Tate said that because she doesn't live in the little brick home, church members suggested that the building be used as a pantry. The church has served the Irvington area for more than 100 years.

The pantry is the only program in Washington County affiliated with the food bank, which provides free food from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as supplemental food items for purchase at 10 cents a pound. The pantry also benefits from local food drives, and volunteers from UCC churches in neighboring towns help run the operation.

In 2009, 8.5 percent of this rural county's nearly 15,000 residents lived below the poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Unemployment was 10.3 percent in February 2010 -- 2 percentage points higher than the same time last year and 4 percentage points higher than 2008.

Kate Hartman, the food bank's agency relations coordinator, said a large distribution, such as this one in Irvington, is a way to reach areas considered underserved based on the amount of food distributed and residents living in poverty. The events -- referred to as "food fairs" -- rely heavily on volunteers to go smoothly.

On the morning of the event, Hartman arrived early to make sure everything was in place.

"We need to move as quickly as possible," she told the assemblage of volunteers gathered on the lawn of the church, as she briefed them on their duties. "We're going to have food for everybody."

Then, as the first car was waved in, volunteer Norma Slone called out one more instruction to her fellow volunteers: "Don't forget to smile!"

Slone, 72, of rural Hoyleton, Ill., and her husband Narvel, an Air Force veteran, were among the volunteers from St. Paul United Church of Christ in nearby Nashville. She said it was important for the volunteers to be cheerful.

"They can get so serious, and they forget that we're here as Christians and with God's love," Slone said. "We need to share that love with the people we're serving."

The man driving the first car in the motorcade -- a father of two from Irvington -- said he didn't know what to expect but figured his family would now have a nice Easter dinner. He depends on the church pantry, while he is fighting to win a disability claim.

"I'll find a way to feed my kids," he said.

'Some are too proud'

From her vantage point just down the street from the church, Jane Hodge, 56, seemed to be enjoying the passing show, seated in a lawn chair in front of the mobile home that she rents.

"You don't see a cop on a bicycle every day," said Hodge, referring to the efforts to keep things moving smoothly.

Earlier, Hodge had been in the motorcade, driven by her longtime neighbor and friend Ann Dobyns, who sat with her now. Even though she lives close to the church, Hodge said she couldn't have carried all that food to her home.

Hodge said she has had epilepsy for more than 30 years and relies on a monthly payment of $674 from Supplemental Security Income -- the maximum benefit -- to pay her bills. The Friedens pantry has been a blessing, she said, as was the day's food fair.

"And it's just beautiful today," she added.

Priscilla Self of Nashville had to work but stopped by during her lunch hour to observe the goings-on. Self volunteers at the pantry and knows some of the people who come for help.

"It's pretty humbling," Self said, as she told the same story told in every food pantry in every big city or little town of America: Some who used to work at the pantry are now coming for help themselves.

As the last car approached, the mayor and some of the village employees stood across from the church trying to think of older residents on fixed incomes who hadn't taken advantage of the distribution.

"Some are too proud to come and get help," Sims said.

Factory closings in nearby Centralia and railroad layoffs have taken a toll on local employment -- and also on enrollment at Irvington's elementary school, which is now facing serious budget cuts, she said.

"We've had people who had to move because there were no jobs," said Sims, who also serves on the school board.

In just about an hour's time, everyone waiting had been served, and Hartman thanked the volunteers who took a breath and began pulling out the sack lunches they'd brought from home. She and other food bank staffers overseeing the event complimented the volunteers and the village of Irvington for a smooth operation.

As the food fair's leftovers were carted into the church pantry, Pastor Tate said the event had been a success for all involved and served as a coming-together for the residents of Irvington.

"I think they've been yearning for something like this," she said.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.