Texas County Food Pantry staff members, volunteers and board members gather Sept. 4 in front of the facility wearing orange shirts in recognition of Hunger Awareness Day. From left, board member Omanez Fockler, volunteer Dorothy Taylor, intake specialist Tanya Pacheco, maintenance technician Robert Malota, director Bennie Cook, volunteer Larissa Horbyk, Experience Works employee Lois Williams, thrift store manager Teresa Gaston, patient advocate Cindy Haley and volunteer Emily Cartwright.

The Texas County Food Pantry is dealing with a significantly increased load of people seeking food assistance, and director Bennie Cook said meeting that demand hasn’t been easy.

Cook said that the pantry provided food to 595 families and more than 1,200 individuals in August. At this time last year, about 530 families received food assistance.

Cook said the increase is in large part due to changes in the way the Missouri Division of Family Services (DFS) office issues food stamps. Local citizens’ applications are entered into a computerized network and processed by any of a number of offices around the state. The changes have apparently resulted in some lengthy delays.

“You’re still able to fill out paperwork at the Houston office, but then it’s forwarded on and entered,” Cook said. “DFS has said they’re backlogged and understaffed, so people are often having to wait for months for their food assistance to come through. That means people who have never come to the food pantry before might find themselves in a food crisis and ask us for help.

“And if you have questions for DFS, you now have to call a 1-800 number and often wait a long time to get speak to somebody. That’s also been an issue. I want to make it clear that the folks at our local office are very helpful and they do everything they can, but it’s the ‘powers-that-be’ above them that can make it hard.”

Cook said the pantry’s challenges in providing food assistance are compounded by financial resources also being in a state of flux. 

One situation Cook and company are dealing with is that Ozark Food Harvest (the Springfield-based food bank that partners with the Texas County Food Pantry) has received far less funding through the annual Hunger Challenge Grant provided by the Walmart Foundation. OFH usually gets $125,000 each year through the program, but received only $40,000 this year.

That money is distributed on an equal-match basis (the recipients must raise the same amount they get) throughout OFH’s territory that includes close to 30 counties, meaning each pantry facility stands to receive substantially less this year than in prior years.

“We got $5,000 last year and matched that, and we applied for $3,000 this year,” Cook said. “We’re hopeful that we get it.”

To help compensate, Cook is looking into new sources of grant funding, including through Mercy Hospital.

“They offer $5,000 to $10,000,” he said. “We’ve applied for $7,000 for food and $3,000 for utilities.”

Another possible source is a grant through the Walmart State Giving program. Cook said he’s applied for $35,000 through that program, which would go toward a variety of causes, including transportation to satellite operations in communities around the county, the “Blessings in a Backpack” program that provides food to school children on weekends and purchasing food to meet growing demand.

The pantry hasn’t before applied for either the Mercy or Walmart Giving grants.

“So we’ll see,” Cook said. “But they would both provide a very big boost.”

Cook has also signed the pantry up for the Missouri Department of Conservation’s “Share the Harvest” program in which hunters donate some of their deer meat during hunting season. For each deer legally harvested through the tag system, the MDC will pay up to $60 to provide ground venison to a hunter’s pantry of choice.

“It hasn’t been approved yet, but we feel confident that we’ll get that,” Cook said. “We should know in about a week, and we need to know soon because deer season is almost here.”

The pantry will also conduct its annual “Hunger Walk” Sept. 28, and Cook said contributions from local businesses, groups and individuals is going well for that.

“We’d like to see $5,000 to $6,000 from the Hunger Walk this year,” he said. “We have some good sponsors and we’re working on getting more.”

Cook also anticipates an increase in numbers in the Blessings in a Backpack program. He said 38 kids in the Houston School District receive that assistance, and that another 30 or more could soon come on board at Success.

“It will be nice to help them out, too,”

Cook said he doesn’t expect a slow down in business any time soon.

“I foresee it increasing more, and we’ll see more families coming through,” he said. “There’s a lot going on; we’re definitely being challenged right now, and those challenges are probably going to continue.”

For more information, or to arrange a donation to the food pantry, call 417-967-4484.

There’s a lot going on; we’re definitely being challenged right now, and those challenges are probably going to continue.”

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