By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — In an uncertain economy, food pantries and emergency assistance programs are life lines for the elderly, the unemployed or the under-employed and the cash-strapped. The emergency services office at St. Therese Little Flower parish helps parishioners and neighbors with assistance to get them out of a jamb or keep them going.
B.J. Atkinson, Social Services director, runs the office with volunteers to handle intake appointments and distribution. She said that along with food, the office assists people with utility payments, prescription costs if there are funds available, and eyeglasses through a Swope Health Services program, again if funds are available.
The food pantry is compact. Located in a former preschool classroom, it houses three refrigerators, two freezers, several tables and shelving units. Consultations with clients take place in Atkinsons’s office and intake interviews in the office next door.
“We work by appointment only,” she said. “No walk ins. We count all appointments as families; a family could be one to 10 people. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, we do food assistance only. We take 8 – 10 appointments each day. Then on Tuesdays and Thursdays, we do food and utility assistance. Those days we see 10-12 appointments.”
Appointments take about 15 minutes, and Atkinson schedules them 15-30 minutes apart. That way if an appointment runs past its time slot, which can happen if a client is new or updating information, the next appointment isn’t kept waiting.
Her operating budget is made up of donations of cash and food supplies. Emergency assistance is also supported through a Parish Based Ministry Grant supplied through donations to the Bishop’s Annual Appeal. Atkinson uses the majority of the cash donations to purchase food — canned foods and soups, vegetables, bread and other staples. With whatever cash is left, she stocks up on toothpaste, toilet paper and laundry detergent. “Clients can come to see us once a month,” she said, “since we also receive government commodities.” Commodities may include canned fruit juice, canned fruits and vegetables, farina, oats, nonfat dry milk, evaporated milk, egg mix, dry beans, peanut butter, canned meat, poultry or tuna, dehydrated potatoes, pasta, rice, cheese, butter, and honey. Available to clients only every 30 days, commodities are meant to supplement the diets of low income seniors.
The food pantry is not a grocery store, she explained. It provides assistance to fill in the gap between monthly checks or food stamp activation. Food kitchens also help fill in those gaps. And, Atkinson added, “People get inventive with they need to eat. They come up with new recipes; they trade some foods with others. They do what they have to do.”
Food pantry clients coalesce into a community of sorts, she said, sharing rides and getting together to share food in a meal.
There are several assisted living communities in the St. Therese service area. “They are on fixed incomes,” she said. “Fixed means they are not going to get more than their monthly social security check or retirement pay. We have become part of their monthly budget. Their check pays the rent, lights, heat and water. Food stamps pay for groceries like fresh meat, butter and fresh milk. So they come to us for staples, bread, rice, beans, toilet paper and toothpaste and commodities like peanut butter and tuna.”
Atkinson has directed the food pantry and emergency services since June 1995. Her commitment stems “from the justice of it. There is a need out there, a big need, especially for those in assisted living facilities … who will help them, if not the churches?”
She also admits to “a bit of a soft spot for those who have been incarcerated. Now there are bad people out there, I’m not talking about them. Those who have made a mistake and paid for it, and now can’t find a job, those are the people we try to help, temporarily. Give them some hope. I also try to make sure they stay in touch with their probation officers or the local police.”
Like most food pantries, St. Therese’s pantry depends on donations to help those who depend on them. “We have had to cut back on our Christmas baskets this year,” Atkinson said ruefully. “Instead of 250 baskets we are only doing 200. That way those who do receive them will be well served.”
She said that former clients who have gotten their heads above water again come in occasionally to donate what they can in thanks. “We also get thank you cards,” she said. “It’s good when a client no longer needs the food pantry, although sometime health issues and death affect dependence on the food pantry, and that’s not good. We try to help all we can, with food, or to get lights turned back on, keep a roof over their heads and keep it warm.”
It was quiet in the office in the late afternoon; no clients were scheduled until the next morning. Atkinson smiled broadly as she went to close up shop for the night. As she should. For the past 17 years she and St. Therese Parish have helped low income and senior neighbors and parishioners fill in the gaps to keep food in the refrigerator and utilities paid.
To donate food or cash, call B.J. Atkinson at St. Therese Little Flower Parish, (816) 444-5406. She can tell callers what the food pantry needs. Volunteers are available to help unload and store larger loads.