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Struggling, many turn to food pantries for aid

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Columbus’ Tracy Rowlett slowly pushed a shopping cart through the aisles of the food pantry at the Love Chapel, reading carefully the paper signs above each section of shelves indicating the number of cans and boxes she is allotted to take home each month to help feed her family of six. She pauses occasionally to catch her breath, the result of bending and standing, aggravating her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Rowlett, 48, is one of 41 families who filled carts Wednesday morning at Love Chapel, the largest food pantry in Bartholomew County. Warehouse manager MeLayne Shaull said that by the end of each month, when bills come due and food stamps run out, the number of people utilizing the food pantry can rise to 70 or more.

Rowlett stopped working about 10 years ago when her daughter, 22-year-old Eden, was paralyzed from a car accident and needed around-the-clock, in-home care. Rowlett returned to work for a short time when Eden became more self-sufficient and got a job of her own, but health issues forced her to leave the workplace entirely about four years ago.

“How would I work?” she asked. “I can’t even grocery shop without getting winded.”

Rowlett’s story — one filled with layoffs, underemployment, medical issues, and physical disability — is not uncommon.

Sitting by the door is 54-year-old John Schwab, a former maintenance worker and gas station cashier who was forced to stop working about a decade ago after suffering a stroke. He doesn’t have a car. After his scooter was stolen last summer, he began relying on neighbors to give him a ride to the food pantry when his $20 monthly allotment of food stamps runs out.

Schwab relies on Social Security to get by, which doesn’t go far enough.

“After I pay my bills, I’m broke,” Schwab said.

He had gotten a ride that day from 58-year-old Barbara Rose, who has battled chronic, deep-seated depression for years. For her, making the trip to Love Chapel is a triumph.

“I am getting better,” she said. “I used to just stay in the house for weeks on end.”

This was Rose’s first trip to the pantry in several months. Higher cold-weather utility bills, plus the financial strain of the holidays, brought her to Love Chapel to stock her shelves.

Rowlett, Schwab and Rose represent just three of roughly 1,200 households that seek help from the Love Chapel food pantry, Hope Book Bank and Salvation Army food pantry each month.

The reasons for this need are many and varied, although sometimes difficult to identify. Because both the Love Chapel and the Hope Food Bank accept commodities from the U.S. Department of Agriculture through a grant program that supplies low-income areas with canned goods, the pantries are limited in the intake questions they can ask of clients.

Essentially, only proof of residence and the number of individuals in the household can be recorded.

Families have priorities

But Alise Pate, outreach coordinator at Community Center of Hope, which operates the Hope Food Bank, feels that after 20 years in the same small community, she knows without asking why most people are struggling to make ends meet.

“It’s people that are working, but their priorities are keeping a roof over their head and paying their utilities,” she said.

Personally, Pate once also relied on social services such as food stamps and WIC. She was 27 when her son was born, working full time at a pawn shop that didn’t offer health insurance.

“I remember the anxiety I would feel going to sign up for the benefits I needed,” Pate said. “I’ve been on both ends of the spectrum. Sometimes you aren’t treated very well. You just feel beat up.”

She scoffs at the notion that her clients may not truly be in need of the services they seek.

“You may get frustrated at times because it seems like maybe some people aren’t doing all they can to help themselves,” Pate said. “But the heavier side of the scale is people that are really trying.”

More often, Pate said, she worries that pride may be keeping people from accessing the help they need.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Diane Doup, community outreach coordinator at Lincoln-Central Family Neighborhood Center. Though the center doesn’t have a food pantry, Doup often directs her clients to food pantries, hot-meal sites and other food services.

“It’s a very sobering thing to ask for help,” Doup said. “There are lots of opportunities in our community for people to receive food assistance, but I am not sure that everyone who needs it is using it.”

For Angie Huebel, executive director of the United Way’s Volunteer Action Center, which oversees the 2-1-1 call center, pride and transportation issues aren’t the only barriers to helping low-income populations receive food assistance.

“So much of it has to do with education, in terms of what is the most economical (food to buy). What will last the longest?” Huebel said.

Huebel once did an experiment and found that she could feed a family of four — three meals with milk and two snacks per day — for a week for $89. But she admits that it took careful planning and some knowledge of cooking to stick to the budget.

Breaking the cycle

At the Hope Food Bank, Pate said she hopes to address this by one day offering samples of meals that can be made with pantry staples and handing out the recipes, so that clients can understand how some items can work together.

At Love Chapel, volunteers give clients suggestions on how to stretch canned vegetables and fresh meat with rice or beans and patiently explain how to prepare different types of squash — the only fresh vegetables available at the pantry that day. But by the time the food pantry closes for the day, the squash bin remains almost full.

The experts all agreed that for some — the elderly, the disabled and the mentally ill, for example — hunger likely will always be an issue. But for the rest, addressing the underlying issue of poverty remains key.

Pate, Huebel and Kestler said their volunteers try to engage in conversation with clients, to determine if there are other unmet needs that may be fueling the problem, although clients are not required to answer.

At the 2-1-1 call center, director Alicia McCreary said that while food-assistance questions consistently account for around a quarter of all calls received each month, hunger is often just one of many issues that come to the surface.

“There is no one answer to hunger,” McCreary said. “For example, adding more jobs would be great, but what if people don’t have the skills necessary for those jobs?”

Instead, she said, various social service agencies need to work together to address health, employment, education, job training, and other issues as a whole to help families on the road toward self-sufficiency.

“It’s a cycle that can be broken,” she said.

Back at Love Chapel, Rowlett loads her groceries into a beat-up van, explaining how she will carefully ration items to last as long as possible and save what she can until the next month.

It’s a skill she has acquired the hard way.

“I used to (come to the pantry) with my mother when I was a kid,” she said.

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