- Associated Press - Sunday, October 16, 2016

WILLISTON, N.D. (AP) - At 9 a.m., when the Salvation Army’s Worship and Service Center opens, Charlotte Flexhaug and Lynee Stoner have already started working to organize the food pantry.

It’s a Monday morning, which means it’s going to be busy. In the lobby, people have already started to take numbers so they can get a box of food.

In the room behind the patron side of the pantry, Flexhaug and Stoner work to organize wire shelves that hold nearly the entire stock. They unpack boxes and arrange cans carefully on shelves.

The pair have lost track of how long they’ve been volunteering for the Salvation Army, but Stoner remembers that she first started, probably 10 or 15 years before Flexhaug did. They have an easy rapport as they sort and organize canned fruit, boxes of macaroni and cheese and sacks of beans.

Once the storage area is organized, they shuttle food out to stock the patron shelves.

“There isn’t any of these out here, Charlotte,” Stoner says as she comes into the storage area. “Pork and beans.”

“Really?” Flexhaug asks. “They’re all gone.”

That could be the motto of the pantry. Food comes in and it goes back out nearly as fast. In late August Kristin Oxendahl, the Williston community engagement director for the Salvation Army, put out an urgent request for food donations, because of an increase in need, the Williston Herald reported (https://bit.ly/2ddyHwJ ).

September was even busier. By Sept. 28, the pantry had given food to 453 people, compared to 346 in August. That puts the total served so far this year at 3,079, compared to 2,700 in all of 2015.

One of the reasons the numbers have been going up is that the Salvation Army has streamlined its process for getting food to people. Those who needed food used to have to meet with a caseworker before they got a box, but now they can pick up food two times before they need to have that meeting.

That has made it easier to get food out to the community, and also helped the caseworker meet with people who need some of the other services the Salvation Army offers, such as hotel rooms, clothes or help paying utility bills.

But the new process isn’t the only reason for the growing numbers. With the downturn in oil, people have lost their jobs or seen their hours cut. Even if some of those people bounce back quickly, there are more who need help all the time.

“The need never disappears,” Oxendahl said.

The food pantry switched its distribution method recently, she added. Patrons used to get a standardized box of food, but now can pick out what they need from the pantry.

“There’s a lot less food waste,” she said. “People are able to get the stuff they know they’re going to eat.”

Patrons enter a 20-foot by 20-foot square surrounded on three sides by wire shelves and fill their shopping cart. Each item has a number by it, signifying the amount people can take. When the pantry has more of a particular item, people can take more, Oxendahl said, while they’re limited to one or two when an item is scarce.

Just after 9:30 a.m., the Salvation Army’s truck pulls up to the garage door at the back of the building.

Roscoe Tubman and Patricia Montgomery were out on a daily run to local stores to pick up donations. Monday is usually a busy day, and this Monday is no different.

Albertson’s is switching the branding of its in-house products, and so had a lot to give.

Tubman moves boxes from the front of the truck to the back, while Montgomery and others start to load hand trucks with boxes of food. First off the truck is bakery items. Boxes and plastic crates filled with bread, buns, muffins and doughnuts are stacked onto hand trucks, then taken to be weighed. The weight of each load is marked down, along with the store it came from, and then the baked goods are taken out to the pantry.

The bread, along with fresh fruit, sits apart from the other, nonperishable, food. It’s sorted and loaded onto shelves and tables. People are able to come by every day to get bread and fresh fruit - the entire pantry smells faintly of ripening bananas - because of the shorter shelf life.

After the baked goods are off the truck, the other food is unloaded. Canned goods, dry goods, toiletries and soda are mixed together. Stoner and Flexhaug, along with other volunteers, will have to sort through everything before it gets put out for patrons.

The pantry relies on a few sources for food. Local grocery stores donate, and individuals bring canned or nonperishable food to the Salvation Army. Monetary donations are used to buy food in bulk from the Great Plains Food Bank.

Because much of the food comes from donations, it’s hard to know what’s going to come in. There can be boxes and boxes of crackers on the shelves, for example, but no peanut butter. One of the things volunteers take care of is helping to keep track of the inventory and to make sure food doesn’t pass its expiration date.

“We try to fix it so the older things go out first,” Flexhaug said.

Sometimes, when bread is getting too close to its expiration date, she’ll take some loaves out to give to a local farmer’s chickens. In return, the farmer will sometimes bring extra eggs to the pantry.

Around 10 a.m., the pantry is ready for the first patrons. The process of restocking the shelves will continue all day, though, as items go into shopping carts.

“It cycles through so fast,” Oxendahl said, gesturing to the shelves in the storage area. Some of them seem full, but they won’t be for long.

“It’s not like this will be here for months,” she said.


Information from: Williston Herald, https://www.willistonherald.com

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