Texas County Food Pantry Executive Director Sister Claire Reinert moves a box of onions destined for Plato into position in the staging area of the company's warehouse.

There is a business in Houston bearing a name that doesn’t really do justice to all that goes on there.

To be sure, the Texas County Food Pantry doles out a great deal of edible sustenance to many county residents in need assistance, but the 22-year-old company does much more as well.

When it began through the consolidation of church pantries in 1989, distribution of food to people in need in Missouri’s largest county was the sole purpose, hence the name. But since its humble beginnings in space provided by the Houston United Methodist Church, the Food Pantry had branched out in a big way and now offers virtually everything a person lacking financial resources might need.

The non-profit company states its mission is “to respond to the legitimate needs of the people who request assistance for the basic human needs of food, clothing, healthcare and shelter.”

That mission is carried out by a staff of five employees, three workers provided by the federal government’s “Experience Works” program and some 40 volunteers. It’s accomplished by providing qualified applicants money for rent or utility bills (“homelessness prevention”), help obtaining prescription drugs (“patient advocacy”), free clothing and, of course, food.

At the helm of the operation is Executive Director Sister Claire Reinert, a Catholic Nun of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in St. Louis. Reinert came to Houston seven years ago to head up the Pantry after working for Bishop’s offices in Columbia, S.C., and Los Angeles, Calif.

Operation of the non-profit Food Pantry is overseen by a nine-member board of directors made up of citizens from all parts of Texas County. Current Chairman Bob Joens has been a member of that board for 12 years.

The bulk of the pantry’s funding comes through various grants (some from the state level others from private sources), but private donations — large and small — are also an important source.

Joens said one of the reasons Reinert was brought in was her familiarity with grants and the grant process, knowledge she acquired helping churches help people in inner-city L.A.

Helping the pantry obtain grants is the company’s grant-writer extraordinaire, bookkeeper Cindy Haley. Haley is also the pantry’s patient advocate and deals with the paperwork, phone calls and everything else necessary to get medications in the hands of qualified people (known as he “Together in Hope” medical prescription program). She started at the pantry as a volunteer some 15 years ago, but her knowledge of available grants and how to secure them made her a valuable asset.

Haley has found grant money to cover everything from housing funds, to building and equipment repairs, to employee salaries, including her own.

“The money is out there, you just have to know where to look,” she said. “We couldn’t do what we do without that funding.”

In providing the necessary jump-start to start prescription medications flowing, Haley helped dispel a few myths and smoothed out a few bumps.

“I was aware there were programs out there, but most of the local doctors weren’t accessing them because of things like paperwork and time involved,” she said. “So I wrote letters to all of them and helped them realize we were there to help.”

Funding for the pantry’s daily operation also comes from sales revenue at its thrift store, which is open to all members of the public. All items sold in the store are obtained by private donation.

Policing the operation is always a concern and avoiding being taken advantage of is a constant issue for Reinert, Haley, Joens and everyone else involved. But even though more than 10 pages of qualification paperwork are filled out for everyone who comes through the door requesting assistance, Reinert must still sometimes play the role of private investigator to complete the process of verifying income, employment and housing.

That process inevitably leaves some applicants out in the cold, so to speak.

“I’ve been called tough and sometimes I have to be that way,” Reinert said. “But it’s tough love; I want to make sure the right people are getting the help they need, but sometimes we have to turn people away.”

“She’s compassionate, but firm,” Joens said. “But on the board, we know it comes down to the judgment of Sister Claire — and she does a good job handling it.”

“There are the true hardship cases, and then there are the ones who just know how to work the system,” Haley said. “We’re always on the lookout, but that’s just the way it is.”

Reinert understands that one of the realities of her job is that she regularly deals with people caught in a generational cycle of poverty. But the state of the economy is such that many people unaccustomed to needing assistance are being forced to seek it.

“There are a lot more people who are unemployed and have no income,” Reinert said.

Many of them don’t know where to turn and come in looking for direction. The pantry helps by offering job counseling, resume writing and access to a computer connected to the Missouri Career Source network.

“Our task is to see how can we change their life in this situation,” Joens said.

Reinert said the pantry helps about eight people per month find a job. In addition, as many as five a week are pointed in the right direction to obtain a GED.

“There’s a drug problem and an early pregnancy problem, and that’s part of it,” Reinert said, “but many people just don’t see the value of an education. Maybe their parents didn’t finish school and they did all right. But things aren’t the same now, so we try to help them to see how important it is to be educated.”

Limited funding makes it impossible for the pantry to fulfill to the full extent every request for housing or utility assistance, so rent or utility payments are limited to $350 per family per month (one or the other, but not both). The amount is not given to the client, but goes by check straight to the given landlord or utility company.

“We don’t write checks to individuals or hand out any cash,” Reinert said.

Food distributed by the pantry is obtained from several sources.

Much of it is purchased from Ozark Food Harvest, a charitable organization based in Springfield. While pantry workers formerly had to pick up goods purchased through those channels, Ozark Food Harvest’s own expansion now allows for weekly delivery by tractor-trailer.

Other food is obtained through the Walmart Foundation’s “Feeding America” program, which provides unsold food to banks and pantries across the nation and reduces the amount of organic waste going into landfills.

Still more food comes from donations made by churches and individuals around the community.

“The churches and the public are very supportive of us,” Reinert said.

Much of the food falls into the USDA Commodity category, which includes 15 items of canned, boxed and other prepared goods. Qualified applicants 65 and older can also qualify for a “senior box” that provides additional food.

To make county-wide distribution of food easier, pantry food manager John Randall now delivers it to recently opened satellite locations in Cabool, Summersville and Plato where trained volunteers funnel it to its proper destination. The Plato location (at the First Baptist Church) started two months ago, while Summersville’s senior center location was up and running four months ago and Cabool began a month before that, also at the senior center.

Before the addition of the satellite locations, many people had to find ways to come to Houston to get their food — not an easy task for many needy families and individuals.

“It has been a big improvement having the satellite locations,” Joens said. “The volunteers in those places make the process better for a lot of people.”

Since much of the pantry’s charitable operation includes aspects regulated by the state of Missouri, Reinert and company deal with plenty of “red tape.”

“They come check on us, do unannounced audits and scheduled audits. It can be tough,” Joens said.

“I think they’re about 25-percent of our work,” Reinert joked.

“And it keeps being more,” Joens said. “And if we don’t do something right, we get penalized; we might lose 10-percent of our next grant.”

Some of the people who do volunteer work for the Food Pantry have been doing so for a long time. Office assistant Betty Anderson has been at it for four years.

“She can probably tell you more about what we do than I can,” Reinert said.

In addition to the pantry’s five salaried employees and dozens of volunteers, there are three more workers who are there thanks to the Experience Works program: Kathy Collins, Robert Matola and Danny Walker. Each of them puts in about 24 hours a week through the program, which helps people 55 and over find employment in their communities and pays them via several different sources of funding (including organizations and individuals).

Even the pantry’s primary players are themselves sometimes surprised by how many people it assists and how much money is spent on that assistance.

“You look at our IRS numbers now and it’s amazing,” Haley said.

Some Texas County Food Pantry statistics from 2010:

–USDA commodity foods received by 800 people per month.

–Senior box food received by 230 people per month.

–A total of $240,000 worth of food was distributed.

–Salvation Army Service Unit – 450 assistance vouchers representing a total of $14,000 issued.

–“Together in Hope” prescription assistance – 200 people per quarter.

–Thrift Store had 14,000 total transactions.

–Homeless prevention/emergency assistance – 400 households received $45,600 toward rent or utilities; 150 requests totaling $4,000 for lodging or transportation; 200 fulfilled requests totaling $6,000 in health and other assistance.

–Homeless Prevention funding from Missouri Housing Trust Fund – $50,000 (increased to $65,000 for 2011, available beginning in April), plus another $12,500 for salary of new Intake Specialist position (same in 2011).

–“Ozarks Million Dollar Hunger Challenge” grant (a match grant involving the Community Foundation of the Ozarks’ Houston Branch and secured by Ozarks Food Harvest in Springfield from the Wal-Mart Foundation State Giving Program) – $10,055.94.

–Emergency Food and Shelter Program (by FEMA) funds – $4,881.

–Individual cash donations – approximately $20,000

–Non-cash donations – $177,000 ($160,000 USDA Food Commodities).

–Funding provided by South-Central Waste Management District for a clothing bailer and the use of a portion of the Pantry building as a recycling center, $5,500

–Job Search utilized by approximately 60 individuals.

–Salaried employees – Executive Director Sister Claire Reinert, Patient Advocate/Bookkeeper Cindy Haley, Food Manager John Randall, Intake Specialist Melanie Self.

Joens said the bottom line is that this is a much larger operation than its name implies and one that has a much greater impact on the community than most residents realize.

“Texas County Food Pantry is almost a misnomer for the things that we do,” he said. “There are so many stories and problems and successes – most people really don’t realize how much happens here.”

Future issues of the Herald will include features about specific aspects of the Food Pantry, including food distribution, thrift store operation, and applicant intake and processing.

Reinert is gearing up for the first of two semi-annual homeless counts, set to take place during a 24-hour period beginning at 9 a.m. Jan. 26. Many groups, agencies and individuals will share duty in the census.

Last year’s counts each came to about a dozen. But Reinert says she knows there are more homeless people in Texas County than that; the pantry helped more than 50 during 2010.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize there are even any homeless people here,” she said. “But the counts help us get a handle on how much money the state should put aside for assistance.”

Next week, the Herald will begin a two-part series on homeless people in Texas County.

The Texas County Food Pantry is located on Highway 17 in Houston, just east of U.S. Highway 63.

For more information, call 417-967-4484.

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