Loaves and Fishes in dire need of help

Food pantry sees lines, need for assistance grow

By Kim Walter

FRONT ROYAL — Even though its doors wouldn’t open for another couple hours, dozens of area residents waited for their turn to “shop” at the Loaves and Fishes Food Pantry on Wednesday night.

The pantry, which started up more than three years ago, serves close to 3,000 people from surrounding counties, and distributes an average of about 40,000 pounds of food a month.

Food is available each Wednesday evening from 5 p.m. to whenever patron have gotten what they need. The line leading up to the pantry, which is housed in the basement of 208 John Rice Road, includes people from all walks of life.

Some are parents, with children tagging along; others are senior citizens, who sit on benches as they wait for their name to be called. Some sit by themselves, while others chat and catch up with each other.

No matter their background, their story, or their reason for needing the food pantry’s services, one rule is always the same — no one is ever turned away.

That is one thing that founder Shelly Cook will always stand by.

“The Lord has blessed me so much my entire life,” she said. “As a Christian, as a community member, I wanted to help my neighbors. I am not the judge here, only God can do that.”

Cook was able to partner with Catholic Charities to receive some food and monetary donations. However, as the years went by and times became tough, the lines and need for assistance grew.

The pantry has one paid position, which handles administrative tasks. Everything else — collecting and unloading donations, stocking shelves, helping shoppers — is left to volunteers.

All monetary donations are used to purchase food, and Cook said the treasury and processes are “as transparent as possible.”

Cook wanted the pantry to be different from countless others in the area in that she wanted to offer patrons a dignified, personal experience.

Those in need have to fill out a single form during their first visit to the pantry. The form includes information about federal assistance, income, and the number of dependents. When a name is called, a volunteer walks through the pantry with the patron, pointing out different foods and how many items can betaken from a certain category.

“The thing is, here, they have choices,” Cook said. “If they have an allergy, they have options. If they need to follow a certain diet, we can help them with that.”

Depending on the number of people benefiting from the pantry, there are limits to how much food a person can receive. The portions are generous, yet the pantry is able to feed one person for less than $2.

Even with help from different food drives or donations from local grocery and chain stores, the pantry is in dire need of extra help.

According to Cook, a website soon will be available for the pantry. It will allow people to make tax deductible donations and become a recurring sponsor for $25 a month — less than a dollar a day.

“These funds are going right back into the community,” Cook said. “Someone thinks that $5 isn’t that big a deal, but to us it means feeding a family.”

The positive impact of the pantry is obvious. Cook said that a majority of the regular volunteers were once patrons who decided to give back in that way. Many of the patrons enjoy fellowship with each other as they wait in line, and some take time to load food for others.

“Neighbors helping neighbors, that’s what this is all about,” Cook said. “And it’s getting cold, a little dark, but these folks are smiling. There is a sense of charity, even in their desperation. Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?”

While Cook said she is hoping for regular sponsors, she also welcomes the help of local restaurants and stores that would be willing to donate meals on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday as people wait in line for the pantry.

For more information or to find out how to help, visit www.loavesandfishesfoodpantry.org, or call 540-550-0334.

Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or kwalter@nvdaily.com