VILONIA — Volunteers at food banks in Vilonia said they are giving out more food in the wake of the federal government handing out less. An increase in requests for services since November, volunteers said, is a result of cuts in the federal food stamp program.
“For the first time since we have been open, we ran out of food, and that was the week before Christmas,” said Conner Yerton, chairman of the Spirit of Vilonia Ministries in Vilonia.
However, the organization didn’t have to turn anyone away. Soul Food in Conway came to the rescue, Yerton said, providing a couple of pallets of food, which allowed the organization’s food pantry to fill all its requests for food boxes.
The Spirit of Vilonia Ministries, supported by several churches, opened nearly two years ago with a goal of providing services to the needy. Currently, the group hands out food and clothing to an average of 40 families per week. The ministry also provides diapers, formula and other items when available.
Yerton and his wife, Lorraine, who live in Greenbrier, are among the volunteers who take turns manning the operation from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays and Saturdays in the old city hall building on U.S. 64 in Vilonia.
On the first Saturday in January, Lorraine Yerton and Mike Daugherty of Conway, who serves as the vice chairman of the pantry, packed boxes and loaded them into vehicles.
Volunteers handed out double portions of food the week before Christmas, Yerton said, knowing the pantry would be closed on Christmas. That is one of the reasons, she said, that they ran short on food, along with the fact that more families showed up for services. Boxes are provided based on the number of people in a family, with a three-day supply of food for each person, she said.
Medical issues and unemployment are the most common reasons why families need a helping hand, Yerton said. Many of those served use food stamps, and the cuts in food stamps in November have left some families choosing between buying food and paying rent, she said.
Everyone coming in has a different story, she said. Some clients the food pantry only sees one time. Others make multiple visits. The circumstances are as varied as the people and personalities.
For instance, Brandy Turner and her three children were at the pantry. It was their first time there. Turner was looking for clothing to wear to a job interview at a fast-food restaurant in Conway. She also asked for a box of groceries. As Turner sorted through clothing, her children sat in chairs waiting patiently. Turner asked if her children could have a prepackaged, half-moon pie from a box sitting on the counter. In addition to the pies, Yerton also gave each child an apple, which they ate while they waited.
A single mother, Turner said she has been looking for a job for a while, but “times are hard, and jobs are hard to find.” She talked about the difficulty of finding a job.
“I’m barely making it,” she said. “I just couldn’t without some help. We would probably just have to go hungry.”
In addition to food and clothing, each child chose a toy to take home. It didn’t seem to matter to the children that the toys were slightly used.
Another woman stopped by the pantry to pick up a few things for her elderly neighbor, who lives on a fixed income. The neighbor, the woman said, is “too proud,” to ask for anything and is wearing pants several sizes too large for her. Also, the woman said her neighbor didn’t have a coat that fit, so she was given a box of food and a couple of clothing items.
Officials with the Vilonia Church of Christ food pantry have also seen an increase in the number of families asking for assistance since November and have served 40 to 60 families per week.
“One week we had 76 families,” said Annette Fay, church pantry coordinator. The pantry is operated by church volunteers from 2-4 p.m. Tuesdays. In addition to those with health issues and the unemployed, she said, the organization also assists low-income working families, as well as grandparents who are raising their grandchildren and have to stretch their dollars to make ends meet.
“We have some steady patrons, but we also have some that we just see one time or every once in a while,” Fay said. “We will just keep doing the best we can. There have been times when we have been running low, but the Lord has blessed us, and we have always been able to help.”