“When we give cheerfully and accept gratefully, everyone is blessed.”
― Maya Angelou
Fighting Hunger, Close to Home
In the rural area of Hickory County Missouri, food insecurity is something that is a reality for 1 in 5 people living there, according to the Hickory County CARES website. This near 20% rate of people facing the challenge of not knowing where their next meal may be coming from is jarring. For a small county with less than 10,000 people, those facing a food crisis are neighbors, family members, co-workers, students, and more to the people living there.
One organization of volunteers in particular, is committed to fighting the hunger that is plaguing their rural communities; Hickory County CARES.
Before the sun even rises on the small town of Wheatland, Missouri, there may be a line of cars waiting for the small building that is the Hickory County CARES (HCCARES) food pantry to open up, says Nancy Rotert, a volunteer for the food pantry. It is not a secret the food pantry is a life-giving resource to the area, and this is clear when the streets are lined before volunteers even get there.
Tom Pack, a long-time volunteer of the pantry, explained how the pantry had humble and generous beginnings. Starting in a little storefront in downtown Wheatland in 2011, the mission was just to distribute what food the organization could. The pantry began to grow and the current location that the pantry is housed in was donated by the Pickering Family. Now the pantry services the entirety of Hickory County.
After the initial start, the pantry later partnered with Ozarks Food Harvest. This partnership has proved vital, allowing for the purchase of food to increase 10 times more per dollar spent. Essentially meaning that for every one dollar HCCARES has, they can spend 10 dollars on food for the pantry. In 2012, 120,000 pounds of food were distributed compared to 2018 when there was 355,000 pounds distributed. Now in 2021, there has been well over two-million pounds of food that has gone through the HCCARES food pantry.
“We have a great community. Most of our money comes from donations,” Pack said. Donations, alongside income from the Hickory County CARES Thrift Store, are how the organization is able to feed the region.
“We just keep growing” Pack says. They now have a satellite site in Weaubleau where food is also distributed in that community.
In peak times, the pantry may see around 300 families during one week. Every patron goes home with nutritious, safe to eat food that can feed them and their family. Judy Gamble, another volunteer, described how by fulfilling the need for food, someone who may be living in poverty or facing a hard time doesn’t have to choose between two needs. “We don’t want people having to decide whether to go buy groceries for them and their family, or to go get their car fixed or buy medicine.”
Through donations and the continued support of the Pickering family, the pantry was able to adapt to serve their clients safely, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The construction of a drive-through drop off was able to come to fruition. Shielding volunteers from the extreme heat, blistering cold, and occasional downpour that occurs in the Midwest, the structure also allows for contactless delivery of goods and minimal exposure time for both volunteers and patrons.
With the drive through pick-up created, the inside of the food pantry has been closed to normal operations. Gamble explained how much more comfortable both the volunteers and patrons have felt. Although safety is at the forefront of what HCCARES does, Gamble mentioned, “we miss the contact with the people.”
The impact of COVID has actually seen a decrease in numbers of people needing services, but summer months are generally lower in terms of numbers, Pack said.
Hickory County CARES Thrift Store
Under the same umbrella as Hickory County CARES Food Pantry, is the Hickory County CARES Thrift Store. Selling new and gently used clothes at an affordable price, the profit made from the revenue generated goes right back into purchasing more food to feed more people in the region.
Pat Bergthold volunteers at the Thrift Store. She said she has been volunteering there for “at least five years” and does it because “it helps the community.” She was there with fellow members of the church she attends.
In certain circumstances, the Food Pantry will give out vouchers for individuals to use at the Thrift Store. Gamble explained how if there is a fire in the area and the family needs new clothes, they try to supply them with what they need. Other situations may include giving vouchers to individuals who are looking for a new job and need interview clothes, or people who need to wear scrubs and can’t always afford new ones at a regular clothing or outlet store.
From time to time, the thrift store has to close, due to a lack of volunteers, so they are always seeking individuals who can donate their time.
Why They Do It
Most, if not all, of the volunteers are retired. They see volunteering for the food pantry and/or the thrift store as a way to give back to their communities.
“Hickory County is a small community and I think a lot of times, when you are not in the heart of volunteering, you don’t see all of the good that is done,” Gamble began to explain. “Once you get into volunteering, you just realize all the good that goes on.”
Pack explained how there is a social aspect to it. There is laughing and talking and getting to know one another, working alongside fellow volunteers, but also meeting people from throughout the Hickory County community.
Pack and Gamble agreed on the camaraderie they experience volunteering at HCCARES, “We are a family here.”
Hickory County CARES was one of the feature non-profits for West Central’s First Annual Festival of Charity. A portion of the Raffle for a Cause tickets is being donated to Hickory County CARES so they can continue to serve the Hickory County area. Hickory County is one of the nine counties in West Central’s service region.