Photography by Dan Dwyer written story by Jacob Mayer
Every weekday morning at 9:00, you will find Jack Cunneen, director of the Murphysboro Food Pantry unlocking the door at the 14th St. location where volunteers provide food for those in need. Cunneen, the pantry’s only paid employee, has been involved for over 10 years. He says the best part of his job is being able to help people who really need it.
The pantry serves people from across Jackson County with food to support families. “It helps out a lot in hard times when you get low on food,” Murphysboro resident Elwood Cox said.
The food pantry began as an organization tied to the Murphysboro Ministerial Alliance. But in 1984, the food pantry became a separate entity, said Jane Williams, volunteer and member of the pantry’s board of directors. However, the alliance continues to provide donations to the pantry.
Williams got involved about five years ago at the suggestion of a friend from her church. “I loved it so much,” she said. “I loved the people we met and it felt like we were doing something worthwhile.”
Clients of the food pantry must meet Department of Agriculture income guidelines before they use the food pantry, and the recent downturn in the economy has brought more and more people in need of help. In 2008, 17 million households experienced food insecurity, or were unable to adequately feed their family, up from 13 million households in 2007, according to a report by the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, released in November 2009.
“We are seeing it seep into people I never thought it would,” Williams said. “It’s amazing how many new people we sign up.” Once a person registers, they are handed a box of basic food supplies including frozen meat and canned goods. Then, they are able to browse for other items to fill out their needs.
Recently, the food pantry moved to its new location on 14th Street, in the former Bill and Gene’s grocery store building. The added space has been a huge improvement and has made life easier for all involved. “It’s ten times better,” Cunneen said.
Before moving from a much smaller facility on 7th Street, clients would have to take a number and sometimes wait a half hour or more outside in their cars because there was not enough space inside. Now, people can sit and wait in the air-conditioned building. I like it,” said Ken Whittaker of Murphysboro. “The other location was so hard to find. It’s the perfect place to be.”
Williams said the new building allows the pantry to plan ahead because they now have room to store food in freezers and coolers, so they don’t lose food to heat and moisture. Not only does the new location have better food storage, but it is also in a more prominent location and has a much more relaxed atmosphere. “It’s such a psychologically better place,” Williams said. “You can have a personal experience with [the clients]. They feel more like a person than a number.”
Along with the increased space, the pantry now posts help wanted ads from local newspapers and distributers, and coupons available to use at local stores, Williams said. It has also brought in a nutritionist to teach clients how to cook the food they receive and help them to eat a healthier diet. “We want to show them how to make it fun,” Williams said. “That’s our goal.”
Need for the food pantry increases in the summer months because children are home from school, where they normally have lunch, so the family has to provide more meals, she said. Unfortunately, the pantry also receives the fewest donations during the summers when demand is greatest.
Donations come from local stores, churches and individuals. These sources of donations help fill the supplemental items that go in client’s boxes, Williams said. Cunneen visits both Kroger and Wal-Mart to pick up boxes full of food that the stores have left over. People donate canned goods, give money and even volunteer; something Betty O’Guinn finds rewarding. “The Lord was nudging me to come and help,” she said. “I enjoy it. It gets me out of the house.”
Looking to the future, Williams is optimistic the pantry will continue to grow. She hopes there will be more interest and more people willing to get involved. “We have ideas, dreams, goals,” she said. “What we lack is people with recognizable names. I went to the Apple Fest planning meeting with city leaders and only three of the 15 people at the meeting knew of the food pantry and none of them knew where it was located.”
For now, however, the pantry continues to feed those in need, always aware of the help it provides. “You almost cry when they leave,” O’Guinn said. “With a couple I think I did.”