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Urban Ministry’s pantry runs low during summer months

by Jordan Green

About a dozen people sat in lobby just inside the Lee Street entrance of Greensboro Urban Ministry on a recent Friday morning waiting for their numbers to be called. Few of them wanted to be identified or to discuss their circumstances, but most were there to pick up a bag or two of groceries to keep food on the table for the next couple days.

The lines tend to slow in the afternoon, but people kept coming with clockwork regularity. The previous afternoon a pregnant Hispanic mother wearing a pink summer dress over her bulging stomach led three well-behaved children into the lobby. The two volunteer intake workers gamely negotiated the language barrier with her until a cheerful Spanish-speaking staffer emerged from a side door and led her to the food pantry.

Urban Ministry’s reserve of food for emergency assistance orders has been running low this summer, strained by both rising demand for relief and flagging contributions, but staff say they have never had to turn anyone away.

“The need is really heavy this summer,” said Val Marshall, assistant to the director of food distribution. “I guess maybe the hurricanes have caused people to split their giving, and caused people to lose jobs. We’ve seen a great increase this summer, but it’s been a gradual increase since 2001. People are losing their jobs, or going to jobs that pay less and have less benefits, and it’s really hurt.

“Summer is the hardest time for us,” she added. “As we go into the fall season and the holidays people increase their giving.”

Urban Ministry averaged 51 emergency assistance food orders in June, serving 79 individuals. On a recent Thursday at 3 p.m. with an hour to go before the food pantry closed, the agency had filled 33 orders, serving 88 individuals. That doesn’t even count those who came in for hot meals at Urban Ministry – a service the agency provides every day except Christmas, when Ham’s Restaurants treats Greensboro’s indigent to a holiday dinner.

In addition to the grocery bags filled for families and individuals who have run short on food and money, Urban Ministry also serves 400 lunch meals a day, along with breakfast and dinner for the 100 men and 75 women who live in the agency’s gender-segregated temporary shelters, Marshall said.

Back in the food pantry, volunteer Sara Frazier had one grocery bag, topped with a package of cheese Danish and a broken loaf of French bread, filled and ready to be handed out. Those items could be considered perks. A laminated sheet on the wall specified what items should go in the bags to fill an order with dietary balance: two cans of pinto or white beans, two cans of green beans or peas, two cans of tomato or chicken noodle soup, a pound of either fish, beef stew or chili, two cans of fruit or applesauce, an 18 ounce jar of peanut butter, a pound of dry beans, a pound of rice, powdered milk, a box of oatmeal, a sleeve of Saltine crackers, a box of macaroni and cheese, one or two loaves of bread and a portion of margarine.

“We can’t always put everything in because we run low on things,” said Frazier, a retired homemaker who is a member of Christ Methodist Church. “We give them a lot of bread. We’ll throw in some extra bread if we’re low on green beans or something. We compensate.”

Urban Ministry relies on contributions from individuals, corporations and foundations to sustain its outreach work – Piedmont Natural Gas Co., Wachovia Corp., the CEMALA Foundation and the Tannenbaum-Sternberger Foundation are among more than a dozen donors that gave more than $5,000 in 2005 – but churches and synagogues give the most. Christ United Methodist Church, First Baptist and First Presbyterian were among nine churches that contributed more than $10,000.

And churches have stepped in to help when Urban Ministry’s food reserves have run perilously low.

“It’s just like the Bible story about the lady who had oil and it was about to run out, but somehow her lamp kept refilling,” Marshall said. “A couple weeks ago we were really low, and a local church, Westover Church, came through with a thousand pounds of food.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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