Local food pantry finds communitywide support

Saturday, June 24, 2017 - 11:32
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Joy Thompson distributes food outside the Eagle River Food Pantry June 17, 2017. The pantry’s Saturday afternoon distribution feeds dozens of families with approximately 2,000 pounds of food every week, volunteers said.
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Antonino Miranda and John Peterson at the Eagle River Food Pantry’s weekend distribution on June 17, 2017. The Saturday event feeds dozens of families and distributes approximately 2,000 pounds of food weekly.
  • Ingrid Backman organizes baked goods at the Eagle River Food Pantry’s weekend distribution on June 17, 2017. The Saturday event — which feeds dozens of families every week — relies on about 20 volunteers and donations from three local grocery stores. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Gordon Dersch fills a box with food outside the Eagle River Food Pantry on June 17, 2017. The weekly event, organized by volunteers, distributes approximately 2,000 pounds of food every Saturday afternoon. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Joy Thompson and Gordon Dersch load donated food into a Food Bank of Alaska truck outside the Eagle River Carrs store June 17, 2017. The food is distributed at a Saturday afternoon event that feeds dozens of people every week, volunteers said. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)
  • Star photo by Kirsten Swann Joy Thompson collects donated food from the Eagle River Fred Meyer on June 17. The food is distributed at a weekly event at the Eagle River Food Pantry.
  • Eagle River Food Pantry volunteer Larry Morse packs donated food into a Food Bank of Alaska truck on June 17, 2017. After being collected and sorted by a small group of volunteers, the food is distributed at a weekly event outside the local food pantry.
  • Volunteers prepare for a weekly food distribution outside the Eagle River Food Pantry on June 17, 2017. The Saturday afternoon event regularly serves dozens of local families, volunteers said. (Star photo by Kirsten Swann)

Shortly after 9 a.m. Saturday, a faded blue box truck rolled into the parking lot of the Eagle River Carrs, backing into a spot near the front.

The back doors opened. Within minutes, an assembly line of volunteers was filling the truck with donated food – pallets of strawberries, carts full of chicken and boxes of bread. Half an hour later, the group was driving up the Old Glenn Highway to repeat the process at the local Fred Meyer.

“It’s going to be loaded today,” said volunteer Rebecca Pifer, piling donated groceries into the truck behind the store.

“That’s good,” said longtime volunteer coordinator Joy Thompson, passing groceries into the truck alongside her. “That’s good, good, good.”

Every week, rain or shine, she said, volunteers collect approximately 2,000 pounds of food donated to the Eagle River Food Pantry from the community’s three largest grocers. At 1 p.m. every Saturday, they give it all away in the parking lot of the Eagle River Presbyterian Church. Thompson — an Eagle River resident and longtime Food Bank of Alaska volunteer — has coordinated the Eagle River food distribution for years.

Week in and week out, nobody goes hungry and nothing goes to waste, she said.

“This is a good thing,” said Birchwood resident Gordon Dersch, standing in the church parking lot one June afternoon. “Just trying to help out the community and trying to get by myself.”

After biking or hitchhiking into Eagle River to volunteer with the distribution on Saturday mornings, Dersch said he packs his own box to take home. A plumber by trade, he said, he’s also a regular volunteer at the food pantry and the weekend distribution.

“That’s kind of how I’ve been feeding myself,” he said.

It takes dozens of volunteer hours to pull off the weekly event. Thompson, a longtime volunteer for the Food Bank of Alaska, spends approximately 20 hours a week collecting donations from local retailers, distributing them to Eagle River’s two area food banks and setting up the Saturday distribution. A small army of approximately 20 other volunteers help make it happen, Thompson said. The old blue truck was itself a donation.

Filling it with food every week wouldn’t be possible without the help of local grocery stores like Carrs, Fred Meyer and Walmart, she said. On June 17, they donated approximately 2,100 pounds of food — par for the course, Thompson said. There were thick chuck roasts, plump packages of angus kabobs, top sirloin and country-style ribs. Once, Thompson said, the volunteers received approximately 700 pounds of donated meat. They’ve distributed thousands of dollars worth of prime cuts, she said.

On one recent Saturday, there were also bags of bagels and cheesy garlic bread, organic granola bars and moist, sugary cakes, clumps of bananas, gallons of milk and packages of yogurt and other dairy products. There were sauces and spices and several 40-pound bags of Nutra-Nuggets dog food. Some weeks, Thompson said, stores donate things like school supplies, shoes or makeup.

While the distribution begins at 1 p.m., people gather in the church parking lot more than an hour beforehand. At 11:55 a.m. Saturday, John Peterson and Antonino Miranda hunkered down on a rock in the sun, waiting for registration to open.

Peterson, originally from King Salmon, moved to Eagle River in 1978, he said. He visits the Saturday distribution about twice a month, he said — it’s as social as it is practical.

“They have quite a distribution of produce, bread, pastry,” Peterson said. “It makes me want to go moose hunting.”

Sitting in a car with her daughter, Chris Poje, Rita Noel said they’d recently moved to Alaska from Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands. She said she’s been coming to the weekly food pantry since this past winter.

“Because I’m retired and don’t get much money,” Noel said.

“We think Joy’s a sweetheart,” Poje said.

With Thompson’s guidance, the food distribution project has grown exponentially.

“Our first Saturday, without any advertising, we got 22 families or something,” said the longtime volunteer.

The second weekend, Thompson said, the number doubled. The food distribution has served more than 80 families at a time, she said; volunteers have served food in blazing summer heat and temperatures 15 degrees below zero.

She said all it takes to register for the weekly event is a name and a phone number – no proof of income, proof of residency or cumbersome paperwork. The impact is the important part, volunteers said.

“When I first started, I gave a jug of orange juice away, and the lady – it was an elderly woman – she started crying,” Thompson said. “I’ve never seen anybody react like that over something so simple. I’ve gotten diamonds and didn’t have that kind of reaction.”

The memory stuck with her, she said. Years later, her food distribution is still going strong. There have been location changes and volunteer shifts along the way, Thompson said, but the impact remains the same. Families are fed. People are provided for. It wouldn’t be possible without the volunteers, stores and other donors, Thompson said.

“Eagle River is quite a giving community.”

Contact Star reporter Kirsten Swann at kirsten.swann@alaskastar.com

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