The Thanksgiving holiday used to bring about a yearly celebration at Least Of These food pantry. Hundreds of volunteers would circle the warehouse from station to station, filling grocery carts with all of the items needed to assemble a traditional Thanksgiving meal in a joyful carousel of giving and sharing.
In 2020, the giving was done from the trunks of cars and from the back hatches of SUVs. The food pantry held “Stuff the Truck,” on Nov. 5, an event to collect Thanksgiving food donations that will be given to Least Of These clients later in November.
“Since COVID has started, we have seen a 32-percent increase in new families,” Least Of These, Inc. Director Kristy Carter said.
Least Of These provides qualified clients with 5-7 days worth of food each month, in an effort to help make up the financial gap between wages and food costs that can send some families, even those who technically live above the federal poverty level, into what is classified as “food insecurity.” In March 2020, the food pantry shifted from a model that allowed clients to shop the shelves of the Ozark warehouse like they would in a grocery store, to a drive-through, no contact method of food distribution.
“We are continuing to do drive-through distribution, and right now, if nothing changes we probably anticipate doing that through 2021,” Carter said.
That’s the end of 2021, not the start of 2021.
“it’s causing us to need more volunteers,” Carter said. “We’re still serving people and still meeting the need, but the way we’re doing it is so different.”
Least Of These, Inc. is the only full service food pantry serving Christian County. It is located on James River Road in Ozark. Carter said that Christian County residents are as generous as they were before the pandemic, but the number of food insecure persons in Christian County is still growing.
“General giving has stayed steady, which we are very grateful for. We have been able to take advantage of some of the CARES Act funds, which has been very helpful, but we keep plugging away. We’re going to have a big number that we’re going to have to reach,” Carter said.
The Least Of These board of directors applied for and received $200,000 in COVID-19 relief funding allocated to Christian County by the state government through the federal CARES Act of 2020.
In 2019, volunteers packed 1,000 Thanksgiving baskets at Least Of These. The anticipated need is now at 1,500.
“Yesterday, we had 15 new families call us—just yesterday,” Carter said. “As families start to realize that the holidays are coming, and things are not changing as far as their employment.”
In August 2020, unemployment in Christian County fell to a rate of 5.5 percent, according to data obtained through the Missouri Department of Health and Human Services and University of Missouri Extension. In February 2020, the unemployment rate for Christian County was about 3 percent, and it spiked at 12.3 percent in March, according to economists at the Bureau of Economic Research and the Center for Economic Education at Missouri State University.
Some families have experienced job growth as Christian County’s unemployment rate falls, but that doesn’t mean that a robust holiday celebration is financially possible for them without some assistance.
“How do they catch up from all of the loss? It’s those kind of the things that I think people are starting to realize, and I’m just hoping that we can continue to be there for them and be this strong presence in the community for families in need,” Carter said.
On top of its food distribution plan, Least Of These set a goal of providing 600 kids with holiday gifts. Christmas at the food pantry will also look different in 2020.
“We’re not asking donors to go shop, we’re not asking volunteers to handle donor to the client. This year, our board has decided that we are going to do $100 Walmart gift cards for every child,” Carter said.
The food pantry has worked with Walmart to access special gift cards that can’t be used for certain items, such as tobacco, alcohol, lottery tickets, firearms, fuel or anything else that a person might be tempted to buy in lieu of the intended gift for a child.
“Hopefully, the kids really get them. That’s our goal, but the big thing is to make sure that kids have a Christmas,” Carter said.
The drive is on to raise the $60,000 in additional donations for the Christmas gift program.
Holiday meal distribution will also be different. The extra effort will be included in every Least Of These client’s monthly visit to the food pantry.
“We’re not doing a special Thanksgiving food distribution this year. When they come in in November for their food appointment, we are giving them their Thanksgiving meal. Hopefully, that will help us reach everybody,” Carter said. “We’re going to do the same thing in December for their Christmas meal.”
The First Baptist Church of Ozark took on the clothing ministry that once ran from the Least Of These warehouse, making clothing donation and distribution possible and allowing the food pantry to utilize what once was space for clothing as warehouse space for nonperishable food items.
Prior to COVID-19, the Missouri Poverty Report, put out annually by Missourians to End Poverty, put Christian County’s population of food uncertain individuals at about 11 percent of the U.S. Censes-estimated population of about 88,500. That means about 9,700 Christian County residents face issues with knowing where their next meals are coming from.
If you live in Christian County and are in need of food, call Least Of These at (417) 724-2500 to discuss qualifications and arrange for food pickup.
To help: Text “Feeding People” to (417) 815-2020
Least Of These can purchase $10 worth of food for every $1 that donors give, thanks to its partnerships with other food aid organizations. You can find out more and make a donation online by visiting http://leastofthesefoodpantry.org.