MARQUETTE - "I haven't eaten in a few days ..." "I am living in my car." These are the words many volunteers and officials said they hear at St. Vincent de Paul's food pantries in Marquette, Gwinn and Munising.
As the economy remains mired in a slow recovery, aid organizations like St. Vincent de Paul are pouring resources into helping those in need. And like the many who utilize its services, the organization is also seeking help.
The food pantry, which has been serving the community in excess of 40 years, served 668 families and 1,353 individuals in the Marquette district in July. During the same month, Gwinn served 379 families and 1,099 individuals. And the Munising operation, which generates its own funds, served 45 families and 123 individuals.
Ron Provost, president of the Marquette St. Vincent de Paul Society, is seen stocking shelves at the Marquette food pantry. (Journal photo by Abbey Hauswirth)
Duane Kovacich, the president of the St. Christopher Conference and chairman of the food pantry, said they have enough food to feed everyone, but food donations have dropped significantly. The pantry is fueled by donations but half of their stock is purchased by St. Vincent de Paul from Super One Foods of Marquette.
"If we were purely on a donation basis we wouldn't make it," Ron Provost said. Provost is the president of the Marquette St. Vincent de Paul Society.
In July, the group tallied a $17,000 grocery bill. It was a significant jump from July 2011, which totaled $11,000. In August of this year, the bill was $17,096, an increase of $7,127 from August 2011. Officials attribute the increase in July to a five-week month and a surge at the Gwinn pantry.
And that is only the tip of the iceberg according to Provost. St. Vincent's bills include more than $2,000 for assisting people with their medical expenses, $15,000 for the prescription program and more than $16,000 for the Christmas program. Add on additional expenses and programs, and the society spent more than $317,000 for 2011.
Expenses have become too much, and officials had to make the difficult decision to cut four of their programs recently: the Boot Program for kids, gasoline vouchers, lodging and bus transportation funds.
"It's so hard to sit at that desk and tell someone that you can't help them," Provost said.
Kovacich said they generally see people in their 40s and 50s. He added that there are many more who need help but whose pride prevents them from reaching out.
"People are embarrassed to come here," Kovacich said. "Many times it is the wife who will come in. The husband feels embarrassed that he is not able to provide for his family."
The process of getting help from the pantry starts with necessary paperwork. From there, individuals or families are given a card, which they bring with them to obtain food. On the card is the person's name and number of family members, which determines how much food is distributed. The cards were created to prevent people from coming more than the allotted once a week. In addition, those using the bridge card or food stamp program can still be a member of the pantry. Although there is a set amount of how much they can take, people can pick whatever food they want. Provost said food donations are greatly appreciated, but monetary donations are just as good and can sometimes be better.
"When money is donated, we can then take that money and purchase foods that we know people will want to eat," Provost said.
Provost recalled a period when a large amount of prunes were donated. While they eventually left the shelves, they moved at a much slower pace. Kovacich agreed, and said they often see people donating foods when they clear out their own pantries. Sadly, it is not uncommon for some of the food to be spoiled and unusable. They often see an increase in donations during the holiday season, Provost said, but after the holidays the needy seem to be forgotten. They still need to feed people all year.
The community plays a large role in keeping the pantry out of the red, but Kovacich said St. Vincent's food efforts can always use more help.
"You don't see the needy like you do in the city, but they're there. Maybe on a smaller scale, but they're there," he said.
Abbey Hauswirth can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 240.