The number of families visiting the Waupaca Area Food Pantry continues to climb.
“We see the homeless and unemployed but 40 percent are the working poor,” said Kathy Jenner, the volunteer operations manager at the pantry.
She said they may have jobs, but those jobs pay minimum wage. In other cases, people have had their hours cut at work.
Jenner says these families are faced with having to decide what bills to pay.
“They have to make some really hard choices,” she said.
Between 30 percent and 35 percent of the clients who receive food are children, 10 percent are senior citizens and about 20 percent are disabled, unemployed or homeless, she said.
In September, 175 families went to the food pantry. That number increased to 192 in October and to 218 families in November.
On Monday, five new families registered.
The pantry, located at 413 S. Main St., is open from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
Families must provide proof that live in the Waupaca School District and can visit the pantry once a month, where they receive a three to five-day supplement of food.
“It’s meant to help them stretch their food budget,” Jenner said.
In January, all clients have to re-register.
Next month, families will have to provide a photo ID of each adult living in the household, identification for each child that lives in the household and proof of current address.
Jenner said the food pantry is also approaching the new year with a new focus.
That focus will be on environmental and nutritional health.
Beginning on Feb. 1, pantry clients will be responsible for bringing their own bags/containers to transport their groceries.
Jenner said clients will receive bags on their initial visit but will then be responsible on subsequent visits.
There are several reasons why the pantry is taking this step.
“Bags have been an overwhelming issue,” she said. “We go through 10,000 to 15,000 paper or plastic bags per year, and we don’t have the storage space.”
The bag situation was becoming a fire and safety hazard, and Jenner notes that this year, the pantry provided more than 500 reusable tote bags to its clients.
She encourages groups and individuals to donate reusable bags to the pantry or to consider a reusable bag drive.
Those who donate food to the pantry can continue to bring those donations in bags.
The second focus in 2012 will be on providing healthy and nutritious food to the clients.
“While client visits have remained steady and consistent with numbers we saw in 2010, we’re starting to see an increase in our numbers – a 20 percent increase since September,” Jenner said.
At the same time, the pantry has seen a noticeable drop in donations.
There have been cuts in federal programs that provide food to pantries.
The amount of food the pantry receives from organized area food drives has been down.
“A year ago, the garage was full,” Jenner said.
She said rising gas and food prices affect everyone, which means those who donate food to the pantry may also be tightening their belts.
“We have had to make several purchases of food this year to keep food on the shelves. We buy in bulk and get discounts through the local grocery stores, so we can make a dollar stretch further,” she said.
The food pantry volunteers do not want the community to become desensitized to the message that food is needed. Jenner said the message is repeated often, and they realize many have their own struggles.
But, there are many families who cannot afford to buy food right now and need help, she said.
Jenner said they are grateful for the donations they receive.
They are asking donors to consider the health needs of the recipients and the nutritional content of donated items.
“We like to see people giving the kind of healthy items they would feed themselves or their own families,” Jenner said.
She said clients read the labels of food, just as they would in a grocery store. Some have high blood pressure or diabetes, which means that foods high in salt, sugar or calories are not good choices for them.
Jenner said low-sugar cereals, peanut butter, canned vegetables (marked lite or low sodium), bags of pinto or black beans, rice, canned tuna, powdered milk fortified with vitamin D and whole wheat pasta and crackers are examples of healthy foods.
Right now, the pantry is especially in need of boxed pasta, beef stew, tomato soup, broth and pork and beans.
“We get small and consistent donations every week from churches and individuals,” she said. “Monetary donations allow us to supplement the items we have in the food pantry and to buy the items we know are needed.”
Each food item that is donated to the pantry must be inspected.
They cannot accept dented cans, unlabeled cans, packages that have already been opened and partially used and expired food items. In the last week, the pantry received each of those examples, as well as a moldy squash and can of cat food. Pet food is taken to Humane Society.
“We are grateful for the many donations we get, but please given usable donations and ones that are healthy and nutritious,” Jenner said.
Food donations can be dropped off when the pantry is open. Monetary donations, written to the Waupaca Area Food Pantry, can be mailed to the pantry at 413 S. Main St. in Waupaca.