ROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times
Everywhere in the world, hunger is a constant need, and Thursday, the Liberal Area Coalition for Families took a big step toward solving some of the area’s food problems.
The coalition, along with the Liberal Chamber of Commerce, hosted a ribbon cutting for LACF’s new community food pantry in the Family Life Center at First Baptist Church.
LACF Director Sarah Mersdorf-Foreman said the need for such a cupboard grew out of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“We recognized the increasing need for food security for families in our community,” she said. “We really didn’t have a space where we could meet the demand for the need.”
The process of starting a food pantry led LACF leaders to First Baptist, where Mersdorf-Foreman said the group looked at space in the FLC and saw what could be done with it to make it beneficial for families in need as well as both the community and the coalition.
“We were able to move the food pantry over here and also a portion of our food warehouse,” she said.
Mersdorf-Foreman said a lot of teamwork went into making the pantry possible from both LACF and FBC, and that included discussions of how to make the cupboard work for both organizations.
“How does it remain mutually beneficial, and how do we best serve the community through this space?’” she said. “I like that the church sees it as an extension of their ministry within the community even though the coalition is not necessarily a faith-based entity. Whenever you’re serving people, it’s a type of ministry you’re doing. I like that we can meet together and do that.”
It was not only the coalition and church that made the pantry possible, Mersdorf-Foreman said, but also people from organizations like Seward County United Way and Genesis Family Health.
“We’ve had several different volunteers that have come through and helped doing different projects in the church to get it up and ready,” she said. “South Church of God parishioners have come up here. Presephoni Fuller’s been up here quite a bit. Pastor (Kevin) Alexander told me today if we need any help on anything to call him. I really see this as a community effort.”
It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child, and Mersdorf-Foreman said a similar amount of effort was needed to make the food pantry happen.
“Things like this don’t happen without community, without people behind seeing the need and wanting to meet the need of families here,” she said.
Mersdorf-Foreman said the food pantry was an obvious need in the community.
“The coalition didn’t have a defined home,” she said. “When COVID began, we really didn’t have a place we could meet and accommodate our meeting. We also didn’t have a place we could serve and store food for the families. We just kept getting bounced from Point A to Point B, and we needed a place to call home.”
Those on hand for the ribbon cutting Thursday got a tour of some of what the FLC has for the pantry, and LACF Board President and Founder Kay Burtzloff said the pantry is well stocked to meet the needs of families for quite some time.
“I think we probably have enough food to at least take care of our different food banks in town for another six months,” she said. “It may not be able to give them the full variety. We did $50,000 worth of food and $25,000 worth of household goods. We’ve been able to take care of not just the immediate people, but we wanted to basically storehouse. We knew it would be a long-term need, so we had to be able to store up food to take care of the long-term needs as well as the short-term needs.”
Mersdorf-Foreman said one advantage of many of the items in the pantry is that they are non-perishable.
“We have several years we can pull from this safely and use it,” she said. “As we’re keeping data and keeping track of the numbers served and the families served, we can apply for other grant opportunities to continue this and make it sustainable.”
“The long-term goal is to keep on doing this as one more facet of the coalition,” Burtzloff said. “The Farmers Market started with one grant, but it has sustained itself. We’re now on our seventh year because it’s meeting a need.”
Both Burtzloff and Mersdorf-Foreman said the willingness of FBC to partner with the coalition made the church ideal for the pantry.
“You look at the space, and we’re looking at other parts of the building that maybe can be utilized,” Burtzloff said.
“I think that’s also being good stewards of what we have available in our community,” Mersdorf-Foreman said. “We didn’t want a brand new building. We didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars on a building, but we saw what was already here. We just needed to make a few improvements, and it’s going to be a benefit for a large number of people.”
Mersdorf-Foreman said for those who have a need, LACF has many staff members to help.
“When you’re helping people meet their needs, it’s not an 8 to 5 job,” she said. “The need goes beyond those hours.”
“It’s not Monday through Friday,” Burtzloff said.
“We will do our best to meet the needs of people,” Mersdorf-Foreman said.
“We’re still in a learning curve,” Burtzloff said.
This year likewise marks the 20th anniversary of the coalition’s founding, and Burtzloff said the addition of the food pantry happened merely by accident.
“We did it because we had a need, and we’re meeting a need,” she said.
Burtzloff said LACF has grown substantially since 2001.
“When we first started meeting, we were lucky to get maybe five or six people to a meeting,” she said. “We get push back, ‘Oh it’s just another group. All they do is talk, and nothing happens.’ We had that happening, and we didn’t get our first really good grant until 2007. We didn’t get our big kahuna grant, our first underage drinking grant, until 2011. That’s what really helped us, and since then, I think we’re over $4 million in grants now. That’s all money that has come to our community because the coalition exists.”
With the help of SCUW Director Clarissa Carillo and Genesis’ Julie Foster, Mersdorf-Foreman said the coalition has continued to meet the needs of people since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.
“We weren’t sheltering in place,” she said. “We were out there serving, picking up commodities. We’re dedicated to helping people whether you work for the coalition or Genesis or United Way. What makes this the most successful is when people call. The food’s not here as a museum. The food is here to be used by families.”
Burtzloff said many at LACF saw Foster trying to handle situations by herself, including distributing and picking up commodities, and this is part of the reason a food pantry was created.
“She needs help,” she said. “We have help. When we had people in quarantine, the county was taking care of them if they were in a motel, but nobody was delivering out into the community. Stepping Stone Shelter was making the meals, and we were delivering. It was just recognizing a need and being willing to step up when it was needed.”
Burtzloff said LACF, along with others, do not do what they do for the money.
“When it came to doing the job of food distribution, that’s just something we do,” she said.