Patch Grove mobile food pantry has been serving the area for 15 years

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The St. John’s Mobile Food Pantry in Patch Grove hosts Second Harvest Foodbank distribution for an area that’s vastly underserved, according to the company.

Without the local volunteers, the St. John’s Mobile Food Pantry in Patch Grove wouldn’t be possible. Most of those who help monthly are pictured (from left): Joe Mergen, Denny Moris, Second Harvest FoodShare Outreach Specialist Brian Larson, Mike McCabe, Dave Meoska, Linda McCabe, Carol and Gene Harris, Steve Hessling, Dave Kerscher and Charlie Errthum. (Photo by Correne Martin)

Dave Meoska, Mike McCabe, Charlie Errthum and Denny Moris load boxes of food into the vehicles in the drive-through line.

Dave Kerscher and Gene Harris load boxes of food into the vehicles at the April 27 mobile food pantry in Patch Grove.

By Correne Martin

 

Fifteen years ago, a monthly mobile food pantry began at St. John’s Catholic Church in Patch Grove to fill the needs of the area. To this day, the necessity remains  to help make ends meet for regional community members.

The pantry serves families from mainly Grant and Crawford counties in southwest Wisconsin, and from northeast Iowa.  The supply is provided by the Second Harvest Foodbank of Southern Wisconsin, which, with assistance from Catholic Charities, serves 16 counties including Grant, Crawford and Vernon.

“The vast majority comes from Prairie du Chien,” said Linda McCabe, coordinator. “At one time, we served 150 households.” Since a food pantry opened up in Boscobel, now the average is about 90 households.

St. John’s has served over 1,050 families, including about 540 children and nearly 2,000 adults. 

Recipients can travel from anywhere to the St. John’s Mobile Food Pantry, and there are no income guidelines required. This means, anyone at any stage in life who feels they have any type of need is welcome every second Tuesday of the month, at 12:30 p.m. Family and friends of those in need are allowed to pick up and deliver for those who may be unable. Lineup is encouraged only 15 minutes early on the street in front of the church.

“No questions are asked,” noted Carol Harris, another volunteer who works the regular distribution at the mobile pantry. “We ask for zip codes (occasionally) so we can see where the most significant need is. That’s it.”

She continued, “Otherwise, I think if people realized we take no income information, they wouldn’t feel so reluctant. They can come once or consistently.”

McCabe added, “They can go to more than one food pantry too. In fact, it’s encouraged.”

For the past several months, there has been a second distribution at St. John’s on the fourth Tuesday of the month—a response from the federal emergency food assistance program during the coronavirus pandemic. This will only continue through May though, McCabe said, as the program looks to end.

 Brian Larson, Second Harvest FoodShare outreach specialist, said the St. John’s Mobile Food Pantry covers a locale “that is vastly underserved. It’s in a smaller area that doesn’t have a fixed food pantry.” He said Cassville opened a “fixed” pantry called the Six Rivers Food Pantry about a year and a half ago. That one, in addition to the Prairie du Chien Couleecap Food Pantry, are stationary with set weekly hours. Also served by Second Harvest, the Boscobel and Gays Mills pantries are mobile the third Tuesday and fourth Wednesday, respectively.

“Fixed food pantries often have income guidelines. The mobile pantries do not,” Larson said. 

In Patch Grove, about 14 volunteers staff the mobile pantry, from setup to closing time, which typically lasts about an hour. With the current COVID-friendly, drive-through style of operations, recipients file through in their vehicles, with their trunks open. Near the front of the line, one volunteer places a Post-It Note on the driver’s side of each vehicle showing a number that represents whether the pick-up is for one or two households. Then, primarily the men take care of the heavy lifting and loading of pre-packaged food boxes into the vehicles.

In the very beginning, on May 9, 2006, when the site got going for its first pantry, there were about six volunteers. Former St. John’s priest, Father Bart Timmerman, approached parishioners Cindy and Larry Busch about starting it. They brought in Linda and Mike McCabe and others like Denny, Lynn and Teresa Moris, Joe and Hazel Meoska and Bob Hazen, to name a few. 

The first couple of years, distribution happened right in the parking lot adjoining the church. Eventually, thanks to a generous donation from Tom White, of Prairie du Chien, a shed was built on the edge of the lot, specifically to house the mobile pantry.

Prior to COVID-19, dispersing the food took three to four hours, as people attending grabbed carts and “shopped” around from tables of dairy, meat, produce, bakery and some general grocery items that St. John’s volunteers sorted ahead of time. Then, the volunteers helped carry bags and boxes to the vehicles parked in the lot. 

“You felt like you had baled hay when you were done,” Harris shared, alluding to the more intensive labor then.

She recalled having to carefully watch the line of shoppers while keeping an eye on the amount of food so it could be rationed as equally as possible for all.

“Sometimes, the people at the beginning would get more than those at the end, and vice versa,” Harris said. “So we tried to have the people who came first one time, come later the next time. It took some adjusting.”

These days, the drive-through method is much more efficient. Pre-boxing of the food is done at Second Harvest Foodbank centers in Madison. This makes the work much easier on the all-retired volunteer force in Patch Grove. However, Larson said he isn’t certain how long that will last.

Food and monetary donations, earmarked for the pantry, are accepted at St. John’s, and its cluster parishes: St. Mary’s in  Bloomington, St. Mary’s Help of Christians in Glen Haven and St. Charles in Cassville. The pantry has also been blessed to have students and organizations from River Ridge School and St. Mary’s School provide food drives and volunteer labor regularly.

Yet, McCabe and Harris said, it’s the Second Harvest allotment and support that truly sustain the pantry.

“Second Harvest and Catholic Charities have been wonderful to work with,” McCabe commented. 

They pointed out that interested financial donors can actually feed more families by contributing directly to Second Harvest (SecondHarvestMadison.org). Larson said the foodbank can get five times as much food for the dollar if it purchases under its economy rate.

Patch Grove’s mobile pantry seemed down in numbers April 27. Larson felt there were many factors contributing to the decrease in households served. He said, there is “extra money in the system” due to federal stimulus funds and additional money on Wisconsin Quest FoodShare cards. He said people recently received their tax refunds as well, and there have been the two monthly distributions.

“The number will pick up again,” he stated, again referencing the undoubtable need. “What was originally meant to be a bridge here has become a need.”

Larson also shared that Second Harvest looks at a few different sources to collect its statistics showing areas of demand. They include free and reduced meal numbers from schools as well as Feeding America studies done by county and zip code.

“Ultimately, we couldn’t do this without all the partners we have in these communities,’” he remarked. 

For more information about the local fixed and mobile food pantry options, visit SecondHarvestMadison.org or contact Brian Larson via phone at (608) 807-7859. Regular pantry attendees are encouraged to download the Second Harvest Foodbank app on their smartphones for more up-to-date scheduling, particularly when weather may be a factor.

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