NEWARK – It’s a Thursday afternoon in early January, and volunteers Susan DeLong, Phyllis Moore and their team have smiles on their faces, and sometimes, tears in their eyes as they help needy families at the Food Pantry Network of Licking County.
“People coming in need comfort, and we try to give it to them,” said DeLong, who has volunteered for over eight years and now is the head volunteer. Moore, who has volunteered for over five years, checks people into the system. “People come in with tears in their eyes, because they don’t have anything at home,” DeLong said. “We often end up with tears in our eyes. The volunteers are dedicated to helping the elderly, and we love the kids.”
There are even shelves filled with various magazines and books, donated by Barnes and Noble, including topics ranging from finance, science, fashion and sports, to kids stuff. “We’ve had them for two years, there’s a lot of variety for different tastes, and they can take them home, for them or their children,” DeLong said. “It’s been one of our more successful things. We fill the need for both mind and body.”
It’s free produce market day, and they’re not only filling carts with produce and other foods for people to take home, but providing families with emotional support. Since being created 40 years ago by a group of churches and pantries, the Food Pantry Network has always worked to make sure county families don’t go hungry. But COVID-19 provided extra challenges, and the network has stepped up to the plate.
11 percent increase
According to Chuck Moore, Network executive director for 17 years, the food pantry increased its food distribution by 11 percent in 2020 over the previous year, from 4.8 million pounds to 5.3 million pounds. That included by 219,000 pounds in June, 182,000 in October, 89,000 in December and 73,000 in September.
“From when I started 17 years ago, we’ve gone from 500,000 pounds to 5.3 million,” Moore said. “It’s been great community support, plus we look for other programs to help families, like the Salvation Army soup kitchen and the YMCA summer backpack program. There’s a need, but we also target what we see as gaps in the community.”
The Food Pantry Network has worked with the Newark Salvation Army, adding breakfast to lunch and dinner since October of 2019. “We’re able to serve breakfast six days a week, and it’s one of the more popular meals,” said Lieutenant Kaitlyn Haddix of the Salvation Army. “During the pandemic, we’ve gone from 100 to 150 pre-packaged meals per day, to 250 to 300, and the Food Pantry has really stepped up to help us.”
Haddix said the Food Pantry Network supplies almost all of the Salvation Army Food Pantry and the soup kitchen, although they still receive some donations from various community organizations. “Any day or time that we need something, we can call them, go over there and they will help us out,” she said of the Network.
Food distributed in 2020 came from the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, Ohio Purchased Foods (OPF), the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), Consumer Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), Aldi, Giant Eagle, Harry and David, Kroger, Tamarack, Target, Velvet and Wal-Mart. Some 4.2 million of the 5.3 million pounds was donated, 967,000 pounds came from the federal government, and only 57,000 pounds of it was purchased.
The Food Pantry Network of Licking County’s main facility has been located on Brice Street, just off O’Bannon Avenue in Newark, for six years. Up until this year, the Network provided families four to five days worth of food, but with COVID-19 taking hold, it became an 8-to-10 day supply, Moore said. “That way, we can slow down contact, plus people are struggling worse. Up until late summer, we let them pick up the food through drive-by, but we had to bring it back indoors since traffic was backed clear out to O’Bannon. This is a good location, and they don’t have to travel too far.”
The Network has been able to add other items to the produce carts, including dry goods like spaghetti and rice, meat and juice. “Community support has allowed us to ramp up the poundage,” Moore said. “We get it at eight cents per pound.” During winter, produce days are held Tuesdays and Thursdays, while from March to Thanksgiving, it goes up to four days a week in some churches and other locations in Newark, Kirkersville, Johnstown, Alexandria and Heath. Produce days were started five and a half years ago.
Each week, fresh produce is delivered to the Food Pantry Network’s warehouse, and might include 4,000 pounds of potatoes, 1,500 pounds of peppers, 1,800 pounds of cucumbers, 2,700 pounds of corn, 600 pounds of apples, 2,100 pounds of onions and 2,700 pounds of watermelons.
The 2020 overall numbers of food distributed included 1.5 million pounds of produce, 640,000 pounds of complete meals, 462,000 pounds of meat, fish and poultry and 372,000 pounds of dairy products.
There are 20 Licking County food pantries (10 in Newark), including the Salvation Army in Newark, Buckeye Lake LEADS, Croton Church of Christ, Faithcare Food Bank, Family of Faith Community Church, Jacksontown United Methodist Church, Last Call Outreach Ministries, Market Street, Marne United Methodist Church, Newark Nazarene Church, Pataskala LEADS, Pleasant View United Methodist Church, Second Presbyterian Church, Seventh Day Adventist, St. Vincent DePaul, Utica LEADS, World Global Ministries and Wright Memorial Methodist Church.
In addition to the food pantries, free produce markets, a daily community soup kitchen and a baby pantry, the Food Pantry Network serves various other county agencies like the Salvation Army. They include the American Red Cross, Camp O’Bannon, Catholic Social Services, First United Methodist, Hebron United Methodist, Holy Trinity Learning Center, Licking County Aging Program, the Look Up Center, The Main Place, New Beginnings, Paul Marsh LEADS Center, Saint Vincent Haven, Shiloh Second Chance Network, Truth Tabernacle, Water’s Edge Ministries, the YMCA and Youth Engaged in Service.
The Food Pantry Network of Licking County is unique in that it is the only one, in the Mid-Ohio Food Bank’s 21-county area, to be its county’s main distribution center. “In the other counties, they have to travel miles to get their produce,” Moore said. “I assume all the responsibility to raise the money to buy the food. We get it here and deliver it to you, and your only job is to pass it out. No fees are passed on to any agency. No matter where you are in the county, you’ll get the same kind of service. Pickaway and Delaware counties have looked to see how we have it set up.”
Operation Feed is the biggest fundraiser, plus there is the St. Luke’s Turkey Trot in Granville, and Elves In Action during December. “Other than that, we have individuals, corporations and companies who have been very generous,” Moore said. “We had a capital campaign to purchase the building we are in.”
Volunteers remain the backbone of the Food Pantry Network, with over 300 fighting the war against hunger in Licking County. Local high school students and some from Denison University also offer their time.
“It’s just neat to see what folks do for other folks,” Moore said. “I just hope 2021 isn’t anything like 2020 was for so many families.”
People can donate to the food pantry network online at foodpantrynetwork.net/donations/.
Those in need of emergency food should call 740-344-7401 to locate the pantry in their area.