Story by S.L. Hansen
LINCOLN (SNR) — For Ashland residents facing “more month than money,” a food bank staged at St. Mary Parish during the fourth week of each month helps tide them over. Parishioners young and old help provide free food to those in need.
“I think it started about three years ago,” said Alice West, who coordinates the project on behalf of the parish, working closely with John Sinclair of Catholic Social Services (CSS).
Through the St. Andrew Rolling Food Pantry, CSS sends a truck to Ashland laden with all kinds of food items, and St. Mary parishioners carry the items into their CCD center.
“Usually there’s a good protein, produce…” Mrs. West said. “There is always lots of bread and sometimes desserts and such.”
Quite a few children are among the parishioners who keep the food bank going. Some of the kids work for the food bank as part of their community service hours in preparation for receiving the sacrament of Confirmation. But other children just want to help.
Tanya Keith is the CCD coordinator for the parish. She said the youngest kids who are regular helpers at the food bank are in the second grade, while the oldest are in sixth.
Her own daughter is on the food bank crew, which gives the Keith family an opportunity to discuss what it means to help others.
“We talk about how there really are people, even in our small community, who can’t afford food,” Mrs. Keith said. “The things we take for granted are a big struggle for other people.”
The children help unload the CSS truck when it arrives, and then pitch in to divide the food by category. Once the food is set up, Sinclair helps Mrs. West determine how much of each item each guest will be allowed to take. The goal is to make sure that everybody has a nicely balanced array of food.
“We load them up!” Mrs. West said.
When the food bank is ready, the kids continue to help the rest of the parishioners (and some non-parishioners who also volunteer). The students either hand guests the items they want, or accompany the guests through the line, holding their grocery bags and boxes as they get heavier and heavier.
It’s not unusual for each guest to walk away with a large bag of frozen chicken, a gallon of milk, canned and packaged goods, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Because each recipient usually gets well more than one person can carry alone, the kids help carry bags and boxes to the guests’ vehicles. Sometimes, that’s a half a block away.
“They are blessed kids,” Mrs. West said. “They have a lot, and it’s nice to have them pay it forward or share the love.”
When Mrs. Keith sees the children carefully sorting food or helping elderly people lug several bags of free groceries to their cars, she believes they are developing the right mindset.
“Our culture is so much, ‘What’s in it for me?’ instead of ‘How can I help others?’” Mrs. Keith reasoned. “This just brings the message home that we should care about other people.”
Mrs. West said that the food pantry helps an average of 40 families each month.
“People are usually lined up an hour before we start unloading,” she said.
She said that the guests who come to the food pantry are not required to prove that they are lacking the finances to buy their own food.
“If they feel they need food, we give it to them,” she said.
Without the St. Mary food pantry, there is just one other source in Ashland to help unemployed, underemployed, or fixed-income families get the food they need, the VFW. Judging from the regulars who come every month, St. Mary is definitely filling a void.
“They’re always saying thank you,” Mrs. West said of the people who come to the food bank. “They say, ‘You don’t know what this means to us.’ They thank the children, too.”
It’s a lesson that Mrs. Keith hopes will have a lasting impact on the youth.
“I don’t think it’s ever too early to learn that you have to think about other people,” she said.
Anyone in need of food who lives in or around Ashland is welcome to visit the St. Mary food pantry on any fourth Monday from 4 to 5 p.m. As the fourth Monday of May is a national holiday, this month’s food pantry will be moved to the following Tuesday.
For more information, call St. Mary Parish at 402-944-3554.