Roanoke church opens new client-choice food pantry | Latest Headlines

St Mark’s Lutheran Church launched its first customer-selected pantry on Wednesday after seeing increased needs in the past few months.

Roanoke’s Old Southwest Quarter Church has operated a food pantry for over 40 years, distributing pre-assembled boxes of lunch to those in need.

But because it was sometimes full of things people didn’t want, the food was often dumped on the sidewalk and in the bushes outside the church. Food cannot be reused and must be disposed of.

Instead, the church dedicated one of its rooms to develop its own pantry where people could choose exactly what they wanted. And those with special conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure or allergies won’t receive something they can’t use.

The church opened the store, called The Lion’s Share, in November as a test run. They’ve had great feedback and are now working 2 days a week.

“I don’t want to go to Kroger and have them hand me a bag of things,” pantry coordinator Connie Watkins said. “This is something dignified and it also encourages them to prepare meals. It gives them more self-confidence.”

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The shelves are lined with canned goods, meats, produce, hygiene products, and pet food to help those who need a little extra help.

“Some people just can’t buy food,” Watkins said. “It could be your brother or your sister. You just don’t know how hard they are trying to make ends meet.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s food insecurity rate was at its lowest level since the 1990s, but those improvements have been overturned by the pandemic, according to Feeding America, a national nonprofit and network of food banks. In 2020, more than 60 million people across the country turned to food pantries for help.

Many of the people hardest hit by the pandemic have been food insecure and experiencing even more hardship since COVID-19 hit their communities.

Feeding Southwest Virginia, a member of the Feeding America Network, estimates that one in eight residents and one in five children in the area face hunger. The local nonprofit helps Saint Mark’s with the food bank.

Jacob Gordon, coordinator of The Lion’s Share food, said customers who come to the food bank have declined during the pandemic because of the extra government help that was available. But in recent months, this need has increased.

St. Mark and Associates have invested in Feeding Southwest Virginia, the Church of St. Philip Lutheran Church of Roanoke and Kroger, $15,000 to redesign the space and store shelves.

The food pantry operates at 1008 Franklin Street. Along with the church’s free wardrobe, where people can access tops, bottoms, coats, and shoes. Both are open from 5 to 7 pm on Mondays and from 10 am to noon on Friday.

Gordon estimates that about 300 family members come every month to get food, and half of those customers walk through the wardrobe as well.

“We want to reach those people who need food and we are very clear that there are no restrictions,” Gordon said. “Who you are doesn’t matter, the fact that you need food or that you need clothes is the reason we are here.”

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