By Su Clauson-Wicker, The Roanoke Times
The Interfaith Food Pantry opened in 1987, handing out groceries to 19 families that month from the cramped kitchen of a cottage behind Blacksburg Baptist Church. The four founders had no idea how much Blacksburg – and its hunger problem – would grow within the next 30 years.
Now the pantry’s client roster lists 450 families; the organization provides a week’s worth of groceries each month for at least 600 Blacksburg area residents, pantry Director Vern Simpson says. With the support of more 25 Blacksburg congregations and at least 200 volunteers, the pantry dispenses food to those in need five days a week.
On October 15, 2017, the Blacksburg Interfaith Food Pantry celebrated their 30 years feeding the Blacksburg community.
It was a true celebration offering free pizza, sandwiches, drinks and other refreshments. Kat Mills, Panjammers Steel Drum Band and the New River Valley Boys played live music. Kids could enjoy crafts, games or have their faces painted at this family-friendly event. The Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam presented a Town Proclamation.
Tours were provided of the pantry located behind the Methodist Christian Life Center on Harding Avenue owned by the Blacksburg United Methodist Church. Thanks largely to the efforts of the church’s former pastor, Reggie Tuck, and a donation by T. Marshall Hahn, the pantry has been operating in this spacious facility for almost five years.
“The new pantry building is heavenly – a dream come true,” says former pantry director Fredda Cromer. “I’m so glad our clients no longer have to wait outside in the rain and cold.” Cromer stepped down in May after directing the pantry for nearly 16 years. Simpson volunteered with Cromer for 12 of those years, he says. He’s also served on the pantry’s board. “We are really fortunate to have so many churches involved,” Cromer said. “Many send volunteers one or two days a month and run food drives and regularly supply certain staples. We’re all volunteers here.”
Marshall Chaney, a volunteer from Northside Presbyterian, sorts donations and wrestles heaping shopping carts out to clients’ vehicles on fourth Tuesdays. “One of the ladies in the church said they could use my strength. I’m a former Boy Scout so when someone asks for help, I help,” he said.
Retired librarian Martha Taylor, also from Northside Presbyterian, has been unpacking donations and stocking the store for many Tuesdays. “I enjoy doing this,” she said. “I like helping people.”
Lisa Hammett, of Christ Episcopal, has been volunteering for a decade, picking up donated bread from Bimbo Bakeries’ Warehouse as well as helping clients fill their carts. “The pantry performs such a valuable service,” she said. “I enjoy being part of it. Once I helped a young mother who’d just lost her job. She was so appreciative. She really wanted to volunteer too.”
Pantry co-founder Barbara MacDonald decided to solicit comments from clients to honor the pantry’s 30 years. With the help of her husband, Russ, she attached these note cards to ropes and hung them along the pantry aisles. The messages bear testimony to the crucial need the pantry fulfills:
o “You made the difference between feeding my family and not feeding them,”
o “This pantry lifts my burden tremendously,”
o “You have given me hope in a hopeless time.”
Potential recipients are screened for eligibility according to the Montgomery County Emergency Assistance Program (MCEAP) guidelines. Some recipients work, but medical or car problems or another unanticipated expense has pushed them into financial crisis. Minimum wage jobs aren’t always sufficient to feed families. So the food pantry fills in the gaps.
The pantry was born in 1987 when four local residents met to discuss the hidden hunger problem in Blacksburg. The four – social worker Steveanna Wynn, Anglican pastor Rev. Harry Scott, and civic leaders Alice Wills and Barbara MacDonald – ultimately formed the Interfaith Food Pantry, which operated one day a week. Everyone who visited the site in the first decade was certain to meet Wills or Frances Sterrett, who worked tirelessly dispensing bags of staples from a pantry the size of a motel restroom.
Now clients stroll along spacious aisles stocked with canned goods, frozen meat, eggs, milk, cereal and fresh produce on their monthly visits. They receive groceries valued at $150 to $300, depending on the size of their family and what’s available that day. Occasionally Virginia Tech nutrition majors demonstrate how to serve the produce or meats offered that week.
One of the giveaway items at the anniversary event was a commemorative food pantry wall calendar, complete with seasonal recipes. The piece, designed by board member Sandy Hagman, will also be dispensed to pantry clients. In the fall, the Hunters for the Hungry program provides processed cuts of deer meat for the pantry. The New River Valley Glean Team delivers produce year-round from various farms, including the greenhouses of Red Sun Farms in Dublin. The North Main Food Lion and the University Mall Kroger stores, along with Little Caesar’s Pizza, donate produce, breads, and pizza each week.
Anyone may donate fresh garden fruits or vegetables and packaged store-bought goods by bringing them to the Interfaith Food Pantry at 706 Harding Ave., Blacksburg, during pantry hours: Mondays 4 to 6 p.m. and Tuesdays through Fridays 10 a.m. to noon.