CUOC food pantry cuts handouts, requires food stamp application

Policy changes due to increasing demand, decreasing donations
Mar. 24, 2013 @ 05:03 AM

Thanks to a perfect storm of local, statewide and national economic struggles, at least one Lee County food pantry will be seriously altering its policies in the coming months.

By June at the latest, said Christians United Outreach Center Executive Director Teresa Kelly, the pantry which CUOC operates will let families pick up food only once a month instead of twice a month, and anyone who wants to get food has to have at least applied for food stamps.

Kelly said the pantry had a record number of clients last year, and funding is down significantly. Several months ago, the group also stopped helping people with rent or utility payments, but even that turned out to be not quite enough.

"It's to that point where we just don't really have another alternative right now if we're going to sustain ourselves through the next three or four years," Kelly said.

She said the pantry, which doesn't currently screen the people who come for food, will retain that policy except for requiring proof of a food stamp application — which she said will have the added benefits of helping families be able to go shopping instead of simply relying on whatever they get from CUOC, as well as potentially removing some strain from the pantry. The food at the pantry will remain free; she just wants people to have the option of using food stamps at the store as well.

"Ninety-nine percent of the clients that come to us, with what they report to us, would qualify for food stamps," Kelly said. "But only about 40 percent have it."

She added that CUOC will have trained staff on hand to help people navigate the forms and paperwork required to access food stamps (officially known as an EBT card), a program that gives low-income people money that can be spent on food but not alcohol, tobacco, paper products, soap products or pet food.

"If they're eligible for food stamps but they're just not going through with it because of paperwork or whatever, we're going to help with that," Kelly said. "... We want to make sure that our families can get other assistance besides just us."

The group is changing its policies for three reasons: a 70 percent drop in funding from the local United Way between 2011 and 2012 — from $27,000 to $9,000 — less food available at a food pantry supplier in Raleigh (plus a drop in local food donations), and lower levels of federal funding and grant money.

Jan Hayes, executive director of the Lee County branch of the United Way, said all the local nonprofits the United Way helps fund are hurting, although she said she's hopeful that they're about to get a pleasant surprise.

Hayes explained that her group does fundraisers in the fall and spring and distributes the money the following summer, meaning that local groups' current budgets are actually funded by money raised in 2011 and early 2012 — just months after a destructive tornado hit Lee County, in April 2011.

She explained that communities around the country — with Lee County being no different — see a rise in disaster-related donations immediately after a natural disaster, which comes with a related drop in donations to all other groups. She added that many groups in town are hurting because of that trend, but she's not bitter: "I'm glad I live in a community that gives like that."

And while Hayes wouldn't disclose exactly how much the United Way had raised to give out this summer, she did say it's already more than last year. Still, though, she said she's supportive of CUOC's money-saving changes and would support other partner agencies changing up if need be, although she hadn't heard of any others tweaking their policies as of last week.

"Sometimes we have to make changes and shore up our resources, and hopefully emerge stronger," Hayes said.

She added that the general strategy for helping low-income people used to be telling them to budget their rent and utilities first, and then come to a food pantry if they didn't have enough left over to afford food. But now, with pantries cutting back, Hayes said it underscores the need for the community to step up — even if it means simply buying a few extra cans of food at the grocery store and donating them.

"Children are not going to have any nutritional food at home and will go to school hungry," she said. "People that work are going to go to work hungry. ... It's a huge problem that I just see getting larger."