By Michelle Miller
---- — Tough economic times force many area families to choose between paying for utilities, medicine, gasoline or food.
Cooperstown Food Pantry Co-director Audrey Murray said visits are up 5 percent compared to 2011 and emergency food assistance is provided to an average of 200 families. She said in October, 225 families (825 people) were assisted.
The number of those needing assistance has been on the rise for quite a few years. For example, the average number of household visits in 2007 was 109, and in 2011 was 192. The total number of new client households increased by 22 percent from 2010 to 2011. It should be noted that in 2008, The Cooperstown Food Pantry reduced its area coverage to include just the northern two-thirds of Otsego County, numbers before that include all of Otsego County.
“We saw the most clients ever in Nov. 2011 with our number at 255,” Murray said. “This month we are at 228 and we have three shifts left.”
November and December are typically the busiest months of the year for the Cooperstown Food Pantry, according to Murray. She said many are hit with heating costs this time of year, having to fill their oil tanks for the first time. The holidays can add additional financial pressures and gas prices are still high; that has been effecting people’s pocketbooks for a while, she continued.
At this time last year shelves were particularly bare because the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York could not fulfill orders because of high demand for food from flood victims.
“The flood played a big role in need for assistance last year,” Murray said. “Although most were not forced out of their homes, a lot of families took in a number of family members and friends who were. This resulted in large groups coming in. Also, people were affected by power outages. People who could least afford it lost freezers and refrigerators full of food.”
Murray said there has not been a problem getting orders from the regional food bank this year. However, she said donations are down.
“I really don’t know why. I don’t have a figure, but our bank account is lower than it has ever been at this time of year,” she said.
As a result, Murray said, slightly less food is being given away to clients.
“We continue to give five days worth of food, three meals a day, for every person in the household. We just had to change our food distribution guidelines a bit,” she said.
On a more-positive note, Murray said the Scriven Foundation is offering a matching grant for the month of December. This is the fourth year the foundation has matched dollar-for-dollar donations to the pantry for a total grant of $5,000.
Tax deductible donations may be mailed to The Cooperstown Food Pantry 25 Church Street Cooperstown, NY 13326.
Another positive this year is the donation by Chobani Yogurt of as much yogurt as can be distributed, Murray said.
“We provide two servings to every person,” she said.
Thanks to a grant from the Cooperstown Rotary Club, the pantry was able to buy a refrigerator to store the yogurt. Murray said clients get a voucher when visiting the pantry to be able to go to Tops Market to get a dozen eggs and milk since they do not have the resources to store and keep those items cold.
Tops Market donated 100 turkeys, stuffing and vegetables to be distributed over Thanksgiving, according to Murray. She said a volunteer goes to Price Chopper to get day-old baked goods every day.
“That really helps,” she said.
“We also have a collaborative effort going with the Cooperstown Food Market,” Murray added. “We have been giving out vouchers for fresh food for a while.”
The pantry started a new farmers’ market program for children this year.
“We call them Give ‘em a Sprout-Out Kid’s vouchers,” Murray said.
As of Nov. 17, $4,835 was spent on market vouchers, and $562 for 281 children’s vouchers.
Another way the food pantry tires to reach out to children is by participating in the national supplemental nutrition program in partnership with The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York and CCS. Murray said the BackPack Program sends home six meals of “child-friendly” food every Friday to “at risk children” in a confidential manner. The program is designed to meet the needs of hungry children in times when other resources are not available, especially on weekends. Bags are packed each week by Leo Club volunteers and discreetly distributed by school staff to participants. During the 2011-12 school year, 385 bags were distributed to CCS students.
The program is funded entirely by local donations. The average cost of one backpack full of food is $5.56 and the cost to sponsor a child for a full school year is $167.
Twenty children are enrolled in the program, according to Murray.
“We ended 2011 with 22 participants. We anticipate more children to enroll as we get further into the school year,” she said.
Murray said the Cooperstown Food Pantry does not participate in a summer food service program for children, but the need for food increases during the summer because children who get free or reduced lunches at schools have to be fed at home.
“There is a perception that we slow down in the summer months, but that is not really true at all,” Murray said.
The Cooperstown Food Pantry, founded in 1977, is an all volunteer agency. It has about 65 volunteers, but is always looking for helping-hands. The food pantry is a member agency of The Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York, and Feeding America, the largest hunger relief agency in North America.
An average of 15,000 pounds of food and personal care items are purchased through the regional food bank and distributed every month, over and above items donated directly by the community, according to Murray.
“Food pantries can stretch donated funds by accessing corporate donations, salvage, and co-op priced items through the Feeding America network of regional food banks,” said Murray.
The Cooperstown Food Pantry is located in the basement of the First Presbyterian Church at 25 Church Street, but plans are being made move it upstairs in 2013, according to Murray.
“A large number of our clients are elderly or disabled, so a first-floor location would be much more convenient,” she said. “Also we have to carry a lot of boxes up and down those stairs. It would be good to eliminate all that work.”
Murray said fundraising and donations will be needed to make the move possible. She said she will be searching for people to donate their time, skills and materials to add to some grant money received to make renovations.
The Cooperstown Food Pantry is open Monday through Friday 10 a.m. to noon and again from 2 to 4 p.m. It is also open from 10 a.m. to noon the last two Saturdays of the month. No referral of any kind is required to receive assistance.
Donations of non-perishable food items, personal care products and recycled grocery bags are always appreciated. Fruit and garden produce are also accepted. For more information, or to volunteer, call the food pantry at 547-8902.