Oxford Pantry maestro

A haven against hunger

Organizers of The Pantry look forward

to expanded quarters to meet growing need

By Errol Castens

Daily Journal

OXFORD – As surely as morning follows night, some families and individuals in most Mississippi communities will wake up hungry – seriously hungry, with no means to buy food.

And whether the cause of the lack is family break-up, seasonal unemployment or some other catastrophic event, small armies of volunteers and donors in many of those communities work to make sure the hunger is short-lived.

In Oxford, they man and stock The Pantry. Like some of the poor themselves, the small block building – a former Scout hut – that currently houses The Pantry’s distribution efforts easily goes unnoticed, hidden on Tyler Avenue between the University of Mississippi’s in-progress performing arts complex and increasingly pricey residential neighborhoods. Each Wednesday, though, folks gather either in hope or in help for the distribution of hundreds or even thousands of pounds of foodstuffs.

The Pantry’s headquarters is but a part of its operations, however. The volume of material requires the use of several storage units, and screening of applicants is done at nearby St. John’s Catholic Church.

“We served nearly 3,000 last year, but this year I expect that’s going to be up at least 30 percent,” Pantry coordinator Ann O’Dell said. “They handled 50 families (two weeks ago), and that’s like Christmas.”

Any number of situations bring people to The Pantry – a breadwinner’s illness, a family break-up or long periods of adverse weather that put woodcutters and day laborers out of work.

“Sometimes it’ll be a grandmother who has had extra grandchildren deposited with her, and she hasn’t been able to get through all the red tape for government assistance yet,” O’Dell said. Others needing help have included employees of fraternities and sororities at Ole Miss whose on-campus jobs don’t exist during the summer.

Many of The Pantry’s clients are older people struggling to pay for basic needs, balancing utilities against prescription medicines against food.

“We have a policy where the elderly who need food can come once a month, where most others can only get help from us twice a year,” O’Dell said. Families whose homes have been destroyed by fire or storm can patronize The Pantry every week until their economic situation stabilizes.

To ensure resources are going where they are most needed, The Pantry screens applicants for assistance, and those in need sometimes help point out the occasional freeloader who slips through.

“The screeners have the toughest job of all, but they keep our credibility high,” O’Dell said. “We don’t have enough to support lifestyles.”

The Pantry gets its own support from a variety of sources. Some $21,000 a year – roughly half its budget – comes from United Way. USDA commodities, surplus commercial foods, homegrown produce and an occasional donated deer during hunting season all help fill the sacks that are sent home with patrons. Numerous former clients have come back as donors or volunteer workers, and occasionally a donor finds himself in need as an applicant. After a food drive at one of the local schools, O’Dell said, a needy family came in, and the little boy found the very can of food they had previously donated.

A variety of churches and other organizations take turns furnishing volunteer workers each month, and many others stage fund-raisers throughout the year. Mondays and Tuesdays are for unloading and sorting food, and on Wednesdays clients assemble for screening and the distribution that follows.

“A lot of people put in an enormous amount of time to make this work,” O’Dell said. “We’ve got some people involved in our facilities that are down there 40 hours a week.”

New digs

The cramped quarters of The Pantry will soon give way to a bigger and more versatile facility that will allow all operations to be done at one site, eliminating double- and even triple-handling of food before it gets into the hands of hungry people.

First Baptist Church, which owns the current site, intends to sell the property, and the city of Oxford has offered easily accessible land on Molly Barr Road next to the Police Department and across from the Activity Center.

Manufactured-home builder John Bostick has agreed to have his company donate a double-wide, custom-built manufactured structure for The Pantry’s new headquarters.

“We have to build the foundation that it will sit on and prepare for it to be an aesthetically pleasing building for the community around us,” said building chairman June Rosentreter. “Everything else is ready to go; we just have to give them 30 days’ notice.”

A drive is under way to raise $50,000 for the foundation, landscaping, furnishing and other needs.

“We’re approaching many of the businesses in town for contributions,” said fund-raising chairman Mike Halford.

The new building will save time and effort both in the storage and handling of food and in its distribution.

“Before, by the time they left the screening place and made their way over to The Pantry for distribution, we often had people standing in the heat or the cold for far too long,” Rosentreter said. “When the new facility is finished, the client can come in the front door, be screened and then walk through another door and pick up his food.”