Perhaps the best Christmas present the Lord's Cupboard food pantry could get this year would be some advanced planning.
Director Suzanne Schwendemann said the extra spirit of giving and the food drives that come at Christmas are helpful, but that people should remember the hungry year-round.
"Everybody thinks of giving in November and December, but our busiest time is July and August," Schwendemann said. "The children were home from school, there were migrant workers, lots of detasselers and such, and these shelves were empty."
-Messenger photos by Joe Sutter
An outpouring of good will: Suzanne Schwendemann mentioned in passing in a Messenger interview that the Lord’s Cupboard pantry needed plastic bags. Response was so great she now has overflowing closets of plastic bags. Donations are still accepted, but the pantry doesn’t really need more right now. Instead, Schwendemann would like mountains of peanut butter or toilet paper next.
"Food drives would be much appreciated March through August."
Donations at any time are always appreciated, she said.
That's not to say the holidays aren't a special time at the Lord's Cupboard. Schwendemann planned a special Christmas treat for one day of each of the four weeks in Advent and the week following.
"One day I did a homemade pizza kit, with the crust, sauce, pepperoni. I had some young people who didn't know you could make pizza. They just thought it was something that came to the door," she said. "It's just encouraging fun and family time and fellowship."
The pantry, serves Webster County residents, is open eight hours a week, in two-hour stretches: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. on Tuesday; 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Thursday; and 1 to 3 p.m. Friday. In two hours, the most they can see is 25 families, while a very slow day will have 10 to 15 people.
The Lord's Cupboard averages 60 to 100 people a week, but these aren't the same people over and over, Schwendemann said. The Lord's Cupboard is an emergency pantry - clients can only come in up to five times in a year.
The numbers are frightening, she said. The pantry has seen twice as many clients this year as in 2011.
Donated food is important, but the pantry also has to do its own shopping.
"We order groceries every week, and I don't think the public understands that," Schwendemann said. "We spend about $6,000 to $10,000 on groceries a month, on top of what is donated."
All this funding comes from monetary donations from churches, businesses and individuals. The pantry alternates its shopping between Hy-Vee and Fareway, as well as buying low-priced items from the Food Bank of Iowa.
Schwendemann said the pantry has a food list it is committed to providing every week.
"One thing that's unique about our food pantry is we give them a menu to choose their own items, based on the size of their family," Schwendemann said. The menu breaks choices down into the food groups, and pantry volunteers help clients figure out what foods go together.
"It kind of empowers them, makes them feel like they have some control over it. It lets them do some meal planning," she said.
Since Schwendemann became pantry director in July, her three goals have been to provide healthy choices, educate clients toward meal planning and self-sufficiency, and community involvement.
"We've revamped the food choices list. We restructured it with the dietician from Hy-Vee on Sept. 1 into food groups. Just to encourage people to make more healthy choices."
Schwendemann has been working on more ways to collaborate with other charities in town, like Upper Des Moines Opportunity, the Backpack Buddies program and the Beacon of Hope men's shelter.
"The men from the Beacon of Hope come help me unload truck. I think we will all serve more people and serve better if we work together," she said.
She's also spreading the word about the pantry, and is always happy to do a presentation.
"I'm speaking with all the shifts at Nestle today," she said. "They're kicking off a food drive."
The community always responds well and helps out.
"Feelhaver Elementary lined the walls as tall as me with food," she said.
In fact, sometimes the community response is more than she ever expected.
In a previous Messenger article, "I made a comment, just flippantly, that grocery sacks were needed," she said. The clients take their food in grocery bags, and if the shelter ever runs out it has to buy more.
Now, though they certainly won't turn away any donations, "I have mountains and mountains of grocery bags. I have clown closets exploding," she said.
The overwhelming response left her very grateful.
"It was a joy. People who have never come in before, who have never donated anything, came in and felt like they were doing something," she said. "Even some of the clients got to donate something."
"I wish we could get mountains of peanut butter," she added. "Or toilet paper."