Food pantries prepare for holidays

Union photo by Andy Hallman

Connie Wells, a volunteer at The Lord’s Cupboard in Fairfield, takes items off the food pantry’s shelf to fill a client’s order Tuesday, Nov. 12.
Union photo by Andy Hallman Connie Wells, a volunteer at The Lord’s Cupboard in Fairfield, takes items off the food pantry’s shelf to fill a client’s order Tuesday, Nov. 12.

The holidays are a time for families to share stories around the dinner table.

But for some families, dinner is hard to come by. Luckily, a number of food pantries in the area are available to help those. Washington’s largest food pantry is the one provided through Hawkeye Area Community Action Program (HACAP), while Mt. Pleasant has Fellowship Cup, and Fairfield sports The Lord’s Cupboard.

Laura Cohen, director of The Lord’s Cupboard, said a special thing her food pantry is offering are vouchers to Fairfield Hy-Vee. Local churches such as St. Mary Catholic Church and First Presbyterian Church, and businesses sponsor the vouchers with an eye toward giving families food for Thanksgiving.

Cohen said The Lord’s Cupboard has been chronically low on nonperishable proteins such as canned beans and canned meats. The organization prepares a special round of food boxes for Christmas each year, and this year the food pantry still needs canned and boxed goods to make those meals complete. Those interested in donating can contact Christmas Box Coordinator Vicki Carr at

Those who wish to volunteer will have a chance at the Christmas Box Packing Night at 5:30 p.m., Dec. 12, at the Fairfield Arts & Convention Center (note the change in location from the previous spot at the Church of the Nazarene Family Center).

“This winter, we also have a great need for more substitute volunteers,” Cohen said. “Subs work occasional afternoons serving clients and stocking shelves, and are able to pick the days that fit into their schedule.”

Cohen said that food donations are great, but monetary donations are even better.

“We are actually able to stretch money much farther than the typical grocery store consumer,” she said. “The Lord’s Cupboard is about to purchase about four pounds of food with each dollar donated.”

Amy Clark is the director of the Retired Senior Volunteer Program at Fellowship Cup. She said Fellowship Cup’s food pantry distributes food on Thursday. She mentioned that a lot of its food comes from community donations, including people who grow their own food.

“Local gardeners sometimes bring us their leftovers,” she said. “Stores like Hy-Vee or Walmart will donate food to us, too.”

She mentioned that restaurants in town give food away, too, so on some weeks the Fellowship Cup’s clients get fried chicken or some other hot dish that’s out of the ordinary.

“We are surrounded by generous people, and we never feel like we’re running low,” she said. “We’re pretty fortunate that way.”

Clark said the food pantry offers produce, and bread and baked items courtesy of local bakeries.

“We do have a lot of canned goods, plus we get some frozen meat,” she said. “We have a pretty good variety of things.”

Clark recommended that those who feel like donating should call Fellowship Cup first to learn what it needs. The reason is that its needs change depending on the season.

“We pack lunches for kids to eat during the summer, while in the winter we collect clothing such as hats, coats and gloves,” she said.

Clark said Fellowship Cup is not desperate for volunteers, but those who wish to volunteer won’t be turned away.

“If someone wanted to volunteer, I’m sure we could find a job for them,” she said.

Instead of holding its distribution day on Thanksgiving Day itself, Fellowship Cup will distribute its meals on the Tuesday of that week, Nov. 26. Instead of serving its typical slate of items, the Fellowship Cup will offer a Thanksgiving meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes and stuff. It will also be closed Wednesday and Thursday of that week, Nov. 27-28.

Fellowship Cup also helps families during Christmas by distributing Christmas gifts. Those who wish to receive gifts need only tell the organization the gender and ages of their children. This information is passed onto donors who purchase gifts for the children. Clark said that, to be eligible for a Christmas gift, a family must have been receiving meals already during the year.

HACAP, headquartered in Hiawatha, is a food bank affiliated with Feeding America, a nonprofit organization of more than 200 food banks in the country. Angie Albright, HACAP’s food reservoir partner agency and program manager, said HACAP provides food to more than 150 agencies in its seven-county region of Benton, Linn, Jones, Iowa, Johnson, Cedar and Washington counties.

Food comes to HACAP and ultimately to Washington County residents from a number of sources. One of the sources is grocery stores in the region who give to HACAP what they would otherwise throw away. The food the grocery stores give away is not spoilt or expired; it just has a dent or a blemish that prevents it from being stocked on the grocery store shelf.

“All of the food is still good for consumption,” Albright said. “In some cases, the grocery store might have purchased too much of a product, so they’ll donate it to us. Or it might be that a bakery product is getting close to its ‘sell by’ date.”

HACAP also receives food from manufacturers in the seven-county region such as Quaker Oats, General Mills and Quality Chef-Heinz. Albright said that when a shipment of food has a small dent in it, most companies choose to donate the food rather than throw it away.

“And why not when it’s perfectly edible?” she said.

In the event the food is mislabeled, HACAP ensures it is correctly labeled before it goes to its partner agencies.

The third way HACAP receives food is through The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) of the United States Department of Agriculture. This is food the USDA purchases from farmers that it then turns around and gives to food banks. Albright said that since the tariff dispute with China began last year, the USDA has been purchasing a large amount of food from farmers to give to this program.

Albright said that those three sources combined have allowed HACAP to keep its food bank shelves stocked. But in the event it needs a product that hasn’t been donated, it can purchase it through Feeding America. By purchasing through Feeding America, HACAP can get a much cheaper price than if the individual food pantries it serves were to purchase it on their own.

Albright said HACAP doesn’t just distribute non-perishable canned food, but also a “ton of fresh produce and milk.” From Oct. 1, 2018, till the end of September 2019, HACAP distributed a little over 9 million pounds of food to its 150-plus agencies.

“And a lot of that food is fresh produce, eggs, frozen meats, refrigerated items,” Albright said. “People with food insecurity don’t have the means to buy produce, so providing that to pantries is really important.”

HACAP’s food reservoir director Kim Guardado said the demand for food seems pretty consistent year-round, but she notices the public makes a bigger push to help those in need around the holidays. For instance, Boy Scouts in the area just finished their “Scouting for Food” on Saturday, Nov. 9, where they put bags on people’s doors, and then returned for the bags later after the occupant had filled it with food.

Guardado said that HACAP opened its corporate office in 2000. At the time, it was distributing about 100,000 pounds a year. That number has grown to 9 million pounds.

“It’s been great that we’ve been able to give out that much product,” she said. “We’ve given away a lot of apples, carrots, grapes and fresh produce to folks who don’t normally have that available.”