By Barry Dalton
(This article is published in the Aug. 27, 2020, issue of The Vandalia Leader.)
The Laura Miller George Help Center in Mexico provides a food pantry for Vandalia area residents every third Thursday of the month at the First Baptist Church’s multipurpose building on Main Street. On Thursday, Aug. 20, the center had a record number of families receive supplemental food.
“Vandalia is a hub for poverty,” said Phillip Iman, executive director of the Help Center. “Because the cost of living is less in Vandalia, people who are living in poverty gravitate there. So it just kind of grew from the first time we went down there [in 2017] and served 18 families to yesterday we had 81 families.”
The Help Center is run by the Salvation Army with partial funding from The United Way of Audrain County. The food pantry in Vandalia is partially funded by the Vandalia Ministerial Alliance and donations. The First Baptist Church, which also runs a small food pantry once a month, graciously allows the center to use its multipurpose building as well.
“When I was with the Red Cross, that’s when I realized there was a huge gap in services for people that live in the Vandalia area, anyone who lives outside of Mexico, frankly,” Iman said. “It’s a hardship just to get to Mexico if you don’t have the money to get here.”
Iman became the executive director of the center in December 2016 and by April he had a distribution center set up in Vandalia.
“I started going church to church and talking with people to see if there was a need and asking to see if they were willing to partner with us,” Iman said. “They were probably skeptical at first. ‘Here comes someone from Mexico again who says they’re going to help us.’”
When it first started, the pantry was set up downtown at the corner of State Street and Main Street with the help of the Vandalia housing authority. The authority director was eager to help. Iman says that the housing authority was instrumental in helping get the pantry off the ground, but that the location was not ideal as it required them to set up distribution on the sidewalk.
“Winter time comes and we’re out there on that street trying to distribute food, you know,” Iman said. “It was not good, and even in the heat of the summer when you’re out in the elements. We were thankful for the location but it was difficult.”
Soon, local Vandalia churches, such as First Christian and Assembly of God, began sending volunteers to help, as the center began to establish credibility with the community.
“Every month like clockwork we’re there every single month,” Iman said. “And that commitment and that follow through has paid off .… We do what we say we’re going to do.”
The Vandalia Ministerial Alliance pays for half the cost, about $150 per month, to rent a 26-foot box truck that the Salvation Army uses to deliver food to the multipurpose building.
“We switched over to [the First Baptist multipurpose building] and have been there ever since, and it’s just been a true blessing. The facility is fantastic,” Iman said. “The first few times in coming in the front door, we kind of tore [the floor] up with our heavy pallet jacks, so we switched to the back door. But the First Baptist is just amazing.”
Recently other groups and businesses have donated or sent volunteers to help with the Vandalia food pantry as well.
“Tenaska contacted me three months ago and said we want to be involved in community projects,” said Iman. “Two or three months ago, Tenaska provided financial support and they sent a team of six people over. They were young, full of energy .… and the Vandalia Rotary Club has donated to us at least once.”
The pantry was serving on average 70 families per month before the pandemic hit. Then it fell off by about a third.
“People were just scared,” Iman said. “But now that this financial crunch has hit–because people have to pay their back rent and back utilities that they got temporary relief from–we’ve had a dramatic increase again. Especially since the first of August.”
To make sure there’s enough food, Iman has begun driving up a small truckload of food on the Wednesday before the pantry is open on Thursday.
“Supplemental food is not intended to nor ever designed to be enough to get a family through an entire month,” Iman explained. “It’s supplemental.”
The food is provided by The Food Bank for Central & Northeast Missouri at zero cost. The Help Center distributes a little over 2 million pounds of food a year, Iman says, including in Vandalia. The center serves an average of 950 Audrain families per month, up from about 750 during the first four months of the pandemic.
“The food bank in Columbia, they are fantastic,” Iman said. “You can’t say enough good things about what they do and how they do it. They are just great. And it’s been a struggle for them just like everywhere else to keep volunteers coming.”
Anyone in financial need may go to any pantry in Missouri for supplemental food once per month. Participants must fill out an application and present an ID. A joint database tracks when and where they last received food. The Mexico center serves all of Audrain County and some nearby surrounding counties such as Montgomery, Calloway, Pike and even Boone because of Centralia. The Vandalia pantry gets participants from Vandalia, Farber and even Bowling Green.
“Last Thursday, we had 60 new applications that we took in,” Iman said. “I see the need increasing in Vandalia, Mexico and Audrain County,” Iman said. “I feel like the need is going to continue to rise.”
With increased numbers, the Vandalia pantry is always looking for more volunteers to help unload the food truck, distribute the food and load back up. The pantry is open from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., so volunteers may come and go anytime between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
“It does me a lot of good to be able to serve, to help other people,” Iman said. “Other than my family, that’s the most important thing in my life, is serving others. It’s about the joy I get from serving. And many others who volunteer here get that same satisfaction.”
Volunteering helps both families and the elderly, who make up about 85% and 15% of those served, respectively. Iman points out that anybody could one day find themselves in need of food.
“The thing I want everyone to know is that people who go to a food pantry are you and me. They are just like you and me, and they could be you and me, they’re just missing a few paychecks.”