County Gives Thanks All Year for Food Pantry
When Thanksgiving comes to impoverished Calhoun County, Miss., each year, members of Glenmary’s Bruce, Miss., mission and other county residents feel especially thankful that they can help neighbors in need through the local food pantry—not just on this day, but during the entire year. And the recipients are deeply grateful.
Vonda and Scott Keon have been members of St. Luke mission almost since its founding in 1995. And they volunteered to lead its Our Daily Bread food pantry initiative starting in 2000.
“We were between pastoral coordinators that year, and the pantry project kept the mission community together,” says Vonda.
“On a visit to one of my old high school teachers in the late 1990s, I found out she couldn’t buy enough food with her small retirement income. It broke my heart. So I cleared out our cabinets at home and gave her what we had. But I said to Scott, ‘We’ve just got to do something for people here.’”
The mission community later learned that the regional food bank would furnish food at low rates if St. Luke took care of the pantry.
The small Catholic mission subsequently established the county’s first ecumenical food pantry—serving any resident living below the national poverty level. In Calhoun County, that description fits over 23 percent of the population. This unprecedented effort, in a county where fewer than 1 percent are Catholic, was definitely a countywide surprise.
Operating from 2000 to 2007 out of the small former county building that serves as the mission’s church, the pantry helped 65 families its first month. The nearby Methodist congregation also began assisting. And their pastor, Rev. Rex Wilburn, has always made the long monthly trip to pick up food from the food bank—at first a 100-mile round trip, now 200 miles.
Today, 300-350 needy families receive 6,000 pounds of food every month, distributed from a more spacious, donated building. The once-dilapidated structure was completely renovated by late 2007 with a grant from an Illinois parish and volunteer help from St. Luke’s adopting parish in Pennsylvania.
The Keons are still the guiding force behind the pantry, says mission pastoral coordinator Deborah Holmes. “It’s now the only one in the county and it’s very well known. St. Luke members are proud of the mission’s role.” The mission community currently includes 47 Latino and Anglo families.
Vonda and Scott make special plans each November. “We put together boxes with food for Thanksgiving dinner,” says Vonda. “It means a lot to people. This year, every box will include a frozen chicken, cornmeal for dressing, canned vegetables, cranberry sauce, and sweet potatoes from local farmers.”
Deborah talks about the thanks she hears the whole year from those who depend on the pantry. “These are just two of many examples,” she says. “An elderly lady on Social Security recently told me, ‘My check isn’t enough to make it through the month and buy medicine and pay my bills, so I depend on food from the pantry. It just helps me so much.’ And a young mother at the pantry said, ‘I work part-time at Walmart, and this food box tides us over between checks. It’s a real blessing.’”
The pantry has also been a key factor in building respect and friendships among people of diverse backgrounds. For instance, Vonda points out that the rotating crew of about 50 volunteers represents virtually all denominations in the county, as well as civic groups. “We’re all doing it because we feel called, not for pats on on our backs. We’ve become good friends, too, with one another and with the people we serve.
“I feel like each pantry volunteer’s face is the face of Jesus for someone, and each volunteer’s hands are the hands of Jesus, carrying out his work.”
Beyond the food bank, the pantry also counts on food donations from grocery-store chains and chicken factories—as well as monetary contributions and food gifts from county churches and residents. But Vonda says she and Scott face the continuing challenge of acquiring food and paying bills.
“We also get grants from organizations like the Catholic Foundation and FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). And I beg locally sometimes on Facebook,” says Vonda. “The response is always generous, because people know it’s critically important.”
Just this past year, three freezers and a refrigerator were donated by a local resident, local businesspersons, and Glenmary. “They make a tremendous difference,” she says.
In the mission’s ongoing efforts to provide food for the needy, the latest project led by the Keons is a one-acre community garden on donated land in Bruce—half for the pantry and half for individuals’ use—partially funded by a grant. The garden is scheduled to open in 2013.
Next spring, when that garden starts to produce its bounty of crops, there’ll be still another reason for thanksgiving in Calhoun County and at St. Luke mission.
This story originally appeared in the November 2012 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.