DU QUOIN — Local food pantries agree that as the weather gets cold and the signs of holiday spirit emerge, they see a boost in two areas — the lines in their pantries get longer and their donations see a spike.
However, there is a tradeoff here. Jane Williams, president of the Murphysboro Food Pantry board, said they have a need the other 10 months of the year.
“Money has got to be there all year long,” Williams said. “We can’t tell people, 'We will feed you in November.'”
She admitted there certainly is a strong need in November and December, but added that this does not diminish the need in the other months.
Jim Dimitroff, president of the Du Quoin Food Pantry, said there can be as much as a 25-percent increase in food pantry use this time of year, so the help is appreciated. However, he said he has seen an overall increase in need in recent months and years.
Megan Austin, director of the Murphysboro Food Pantry, said they saw an average of 100 more families come through their lines last month compared to historic data for the facility. On average, they serve about 3,400 to 3,500 people a month.
Whatever the cause, all agreed that the need is great in Southern Illinois, and though the uneven flow of donations makes things difficult sometimes — Austin said if the pantry runs low on food, they would have to cut back on how much each family receives as opposed to cutting back how many families they serve — they manage to get by on the goodness of people’s hearts.
“There are a lot of generous people out there and we are thankful for them,” Dimitroff said.
Williams said no matter when people give, she is always thankful.
“Even if the donors only think about it in November and December, I’ll take it,” she said.
Steve McCray, vice president of the Du Quoin Food Pantry, said it’s not always easy making ends meet for the pantry.
“Yes we go through rough times,” he said, explaining that when things go wrong — a freezer goes out or the air conditioning needs to be replaced — they still somehow manage. The support always comes in.
Both the Du Quoin Food Pantry and the Murphysboro Food Pantry do their best to take the stigma away from needing to ask for help. In Du Quoin, patrons are given a certain allotment of points based on a variety of factors, including household size. With these points they are allowed to “shop” for goods the pantry has to offer — some things like bread do not count against their points. McCray said this allows people's personal tastes and needs to be most closely met, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all basket approach.
Williams said in Murphysboro she tries to give families the most value she can when preparing their boxes of food. She gave the example of a family of six — she said were someone to take the components of a box to a grocery store and replace them with the cheapest product equivalents, their total value would come to about $150.
In their work, all said one thing is absolutely paramount — check judgement at the door.
“This is really not a position that you can grow to be callous in,” Austin said.
“I’ve learned from work up here, do not judge people,” McCray said. “You’ve not walked in their shoes. You have no idea what this lady or this guy is going through.”
McCray and Williams said they take issue with the idea that their patron lists are full of scammers. Williams said while they do have the ability to ban people from using their services — this is done for things like selling food for other goods — they have done so very rarely. She said being poor and in-need is not an easy thing, spiritually and practically.
“I feel like if they are willing to endure that to get whatever we have to share with them, they probably are in need,” Williams said. “They don’t come, for the most, because they think they are going to get a T-bone steak.” Williams said many have “swallowed their pride” and have exhausted all their other resources before coming there.
Williams said one never knows what a person's situation is. She provided the example of a woman who came in in a nice car and dressed well to ask for help. She approached Williams and said she had hit rock bottom. She had been having seizures and lost her job because she couldn’t work.
“I don’t know what to do,” Williams remembers her telling her, adding that she had never been to the food bank before.
McCray said he tries to correct misconceptions whenever he can. He remembered reading on social media a common complaint of someone with using a Link card — a card used to access government subsidy for designated food items — to buy cigarettes and other nonessentials.
“I thought, ‘What a lie,’” he said, and explained that he then posted the purchasable items list from the Department of Human Services.
McCray said the why is less important than the simple fact that people are hungry.
“The need, it’s here,” he said.
When it comes to how people give, Williams said anything is appreciated and different types of giving have different meaning. She said from adults, cash can be stretched the most by the pantry — she said because of USDA programs, which Murphysboro and Du Quoin both participate in, she can sometimes get a pound of food for just 50 cents. She said this means a $100 donation can bring in about 200 pounds of food.
However, she said canned food drives still have their place. She said if young children can have the experience of thinking about the hungry and seeing just how big an impact a group can have in helping the needy through a school food drive, then that has its own tremendous value.
She said she is never in any place to complain about a donation, whether it’s $5 cash or a package of mixed vegetables.
“By gosh I’m thankful for every can I get,” she said.