Tough times create major need at Seaford Food Closet
By Tony E. Windsor
The shelves are lined with an assortment of canned goods, boxed food items and a variety of other food-related consumables. Refrigerators and freezers stock supplies of milk and poultry including chickens and fresh ground venison. The Seaford Community Food Closet is open for business and volunteers are preparing care packages for local families during one of the demanding times of the year, Christmas.
For about 50 years, the food closet has been a food support for families in need. It started in the 1960s when members of the United Methodist Women of St. John's were spiritually inspired to begin an outreach to those in the community who were in need. The concept for a food closet was realized and the St. John's Community Food Closet was staffed and operated as a mission of the St. John's U.M. Church in Seaford.
About 15 years ago a group of women from different area churches who had volunteered at the food closet became extremely committed to the project and developed a more structured operational plan. Impressed, the St. John's leadership asked the women if they would be interested in taking over the project.
The women, known as the Committee, are Linda Hollis, Cheryl Coffin, Arsie Burton, Clem Parker and Sue Manlove. The committee has grown the operation which is now known as the Seaford Community Food Closet. Coffin said the operation is still housed in St. John's U.M. Church at Pine and Poplar streets, Seaford, but is supported by a number of area churches.
St. John's houses the food closet and is very supportive of this project. The church enables us to have no overhead costs. We also have a number of area churches that support us and provide volunteers to help with the operations, she said.
The work at the food closet is focused solely on securing and packaging food supplies for the hundreds of people who are referred each year. The individuals who receive the support are referred through the Shipley State Service Center, Seaford, and Love, Inc., an independent, non-profit owned and supported by local churches. Families who need help in receiving food supplies must contact these organizations in order to be registered for service.
Coffin said area businesses, including Food Lion, are also very supportive of the project and help with appropriating needed food items, especially those types of foods such as milk and bread that do not have a long shelf life. These, Coffin said, must be replenished weekly by members of the committee using cash contributions that come to the food closet.
The State Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife donates a considerable amount of fresh venison. The deer meat is neatly wrapped and stored in two freezers at the Closet. The meat comes from hunters who have bagged deer but are not interested in keeping the meat. Natural Resources takes care of collecting the deer and having the meat butchered and packaged.
The Community Food Closet is funded solely by donations and is maintained totally by volunteers. Committee members say one of the most important components of the food closet comes in the form of volunteers. Volunteers help bring in the food donations and assist in the packaging of the food care packages prior to the arrival of the clients. Coffin said each week volunteers from the local Teen Challenge organization help the committee with loading and transporting as many as six grocery carts of merchandise that must be bought regularly. The Teen Challenge members help load the trucks and also carry in the oftentimes heavy boxes and bags of food.
In addition there has been ongoing support from local Boy Scouts, the Boys & Girls Club of Western Sussex County, students in the Seaford School District and members of the local MERIT (Minority Engineering Regional Incentive Training) program.
It is this type of support that the Community Food Closet depends on. Locally, a number of organizations and individuals make monetary or supply donations. This includes the annual Mother's Day collection of canned goods by the U.S Postal Service in Seaford and the annual Caroling on the Circle event in Georgetown.
Coffin said it is important that the Food Closet be sure all food products provided to individuals and families are fresh. She said each food item has a color-coded sticker that indicates the expiration date. She said all 2016 items are off the shelves and only those expiring no earlier than 2017 can be found. She said the Food Closet also provides milk, but it purchases organic milk because that keeps significantly longer than traditional milk products.
The Committee takes care of all food product sorting, stocking and labeling to make the job of preparing the food packages as convenient and effective as possible. The volunteers are provided with information that helps determine how much of each type product should be given to a family depending on its size.
On this particular day in mid-December, Connie Halter, Seaford Senior High School, came to the food closet with helpers who dropped off 1,227 canned good items. The donation came as part of a special 1,000-can challenge issued to students by high school Principal Terry Carson. Halter said this was a school-wide event involving both students and staff from the Little Jays Preschool up to the high school students. The students and staff competed to see who could bring in the most cans. Halter said the staff collected the most cans overall (463) and the Little Jays Preschool was the winner among the students with a collection of 227 cans. The preschool was awarded a Pizza Social for their efforts. Halter said Principal Carson also plans to treat the entire school to an ice cream party sometime in the New Year.
In recent years, the food closet has been supported through a local version of the internationally recognized 15-Can Challenge. The initiative begins on Jan. 9 and runs through April 21.
The Seaford Community Food Closet Committee is asking that members of the public, including individuals, businesses, civic groups, churches and schools, take part.
The challenge encourages shoppers to pick up at least one extra boxed, canned or jar of food each week for the 15 weeks. The collected food items can then be dropped off at the designated drop-off points, including the Western Sussex Boys & Girls Club, any Seaford School District school, the Seaford District Library and Cultural Center, or the lobby of Nanticoke Memorial Hospital. These items will be collected and transported to the food closet.
Coffin said the 15-Food Can Challenge is a great way to involve the community in a doable project. Our past participation in this project has been so successful that we feel we should continue as the needs are still present. The return on investment for participants is a warm and heartfelt feeling of helping our hungry neighbors, she said.
Items being sought as part of the 15-Can Challenge are non-perishables including baked beans, peas, strong beans, corn, mixed vegetables, soups, spaghetti sauce and noodles and other pastas, canned chicken and tuna, Hamburger Helper, peanut butter, mayonnaise, pancake mix and syrup, cereal and oatmeal and snacks for children.
Hygiene items are also welcome including toilet paper, shampoo, body soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes and dish detergent.
The 15-Can Challenge is an opportunity for the food closet to have necessary items to keep food shelves stocked until the Stamp Out Hunger food drive takes place in May. Organized by the National Association of Letter Carriers, the local food drive is carried out by the Seaford Post Office on the second Saturday in May.
The mail carriers collect non-perishable food donations left by mailboxes and in post offices and deliver them to the Seaford Community Food Closet. It is amazing, Coffin said. All day long postal truck after postal truck pulls up and drops of food items. It is a great help.
The postal food drive is the largest one-day food drive in the country and in the last 24 years has delivered one billion pounds of food to area food closets and pantries.
For more information about the Seaford Community Closet and the 15-Can Challenge, including a complete list of needed food items, visit the organization's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/seafordcommunityfoodcloset.