Community cupboards feel share of hard times

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— It’s nearing 1 p.m. on a recent Friday and the day is scorching. The heat prompts Tom Galloway to open the locked door of the basement of First Presbyterian Church on First Avenue and Birch Street. He’s ahead of schedule to usher folks in — the Pantry Shelf food distribution program runs this day from 1-3 p.m.

Those waiting on the steps seem grateful to seek the cool of the hallway that smells like Sunday school, bread and men’s cologne. They file in behind the Pantry Shelf manager with little chatter, seeking a spot on the padded benches.

Each applicant will sign in and fill out a two-page menu, of sorts, that allows for some choices of what food of received. Under “cereal,” one can pick from grits or oatmeal. One can of beans is allowed, be it pinto, kidney, refried or chili. The canned vegetables selection — a household is allowed two — includes corn, green beans, pumpkin, carrots and peas.

This spot is the only food distribution site with any real choices for its clients, said Gail McGhee, manager of BMAC Food Bank, the main source of the food given away in the Walla Walla Valley.

The organization decided to go to the option system after finding too many bags of rice by the front door on the giveaway days — people didn’t want it or couldn’t cook it, so they would give the rice back, volunteers said.

There are 16 food groups altogether on the Pantry Shelf’s list, and anyone bringing a reusable bag — which is strongly encouraged in a poster that states “plastic bags are bad for us and the earth” — can choose from a special shelf — items such as green curry simmer sauce, Crisco shortening sticks, packets of weight-loss shakes.

Galloway said he expects to serve 35 or so households on this day.

Whatever it ends up being, the number of people requesting help with food is climbing. For the first half of the year, the Pantry Shelf purchased 600 pounds of food monthly to supplement groceries from the Blue Mountain Action Council Food Bank, give or take a pound of pancake mix or two.

For July’s grocery bill, Galloway needed to write a check for 1,500 more pounds of food, he noted. “And the checkbook balance is getting low. And BMAC’s (food) stock is down.”

Six Walla Walla churches financially support Pantry Shelf, which was founded in 1972.

A sign-in room at the end of the basement also serves as the produce and bread counter, Galloway said, fingering through bags of Romaine lettuce, which is beginning to show its age with browning, soggy edges. “This is probably its last day.”

Bags of fresh, rosy-stemmed Swiss chard come from the community garden but have few takers, he added. “I’m not sure people know what to do with it.”

The commercially-bagged salad greens, pearly plums and Golden Delicious apples, however, are popular with most of today’s “shoppers.” One mom cautions her little girl to leave some for others as the child fills her hands with the smooth-skinned plums.

Some lookers consider the zucchini that’s overgrown by many days, wondering aloud how best to use the giant, green veggie. No one seems willing to accept the challenge.

One room away, a small army of women work in the canned and dry good section. Dozens of egg cartons are getting dissected into halves, corn masa and pancake mix are being measured — it’s always a four-cup portion — into baggies. As clients approach the half-door opening according to their tag number, a volunteer accepts the list of choices and quickly fills the order from the shelves of dried beans, shelf-stable or canned milk, peanut butter and more.

All food given out is weighed coming into the center, and every shopping bag gets weighed before being handed back.

A sign posted by the door is a reminder to volunteers: “Be kinder than necessary for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”

For the mom waiting in the hall with her two children, it’s a battle of pride versus need. She needs the help, she conceded, holding her sleepy son while keeping a close eye on her daughter’s coloring efforts. “But I don’t want to be identified. I don’t want my friends going ‘ohh.’”

The young woman is sandwiched between people sharing food stamp stories, gossiping about who gets how much in welfare help and speculating as to why. “I know a gal, she don’t have to pay nothin,’” one woman says with a shake of her head. “And she gets $800 a month.”

At each end of the hallway sit young men, their arms resting on their knees and heads down. None make voluntary eye contact with anyone.

Then there’s Rachel. At 17, she is here for her 76-year-old grandmother, who must wait longer for her hip replacement to heal before attempting stairs. Rachel is accompanied by a young man who decidedly does not want to give his name.

“This food is important,” Rachel told me. “She only gets $89 in food stamps.”

Coming to get free food is not particularly bothersome to Rachel, but it takes her out of her comfort zone, she said. “I’ve never had to go to a food bank before. It’s new and anything new is scary or embarrassing until you get used to it.”

Rachel is not alone, said BJ Selde, who has volunteered at Pantry Shelf for 14 years. “Our clientele has changed. We have more homeless, more veterans.”

It makes her sad, she added. “We serve a great deal more people now. All the time.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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