It might not yet be common knowledge, but the return of a mobile food pantry to the Ottawa area is an important development certain to grow in prominence and participation.
Last April I shared an interview with Marissa Vicich, co-manager of Community Food Basket of Ottawa, who discussed her desire to grow “more involved and invested” in providing safe and affordable access to nutritional food for anyone in need. Since then, River Bend Food Bank helped re-establish a mobile food pantry — the first in more than a decade.
“Last year we met with River Bend representatives and talked about many different projects that each organization had in the works,” Vicich said. Based in the Quad Cities, River Bend coordinates inventory for more than 300 groups in Iowa and Illinois. “We are their easternmost partner agency. It had been tough to form a deeper collaboration.”
The first meeting resulted in a September distribution at Shepherd Middle School with plans for quarterly events in 2019. Then things got more involved.
“At the beginning of this year, River Bend reviewed meal gap data and came back to us and asked if we could take on facilitating one mobile pantry a month in order to get more food out to La Salle County residents,” she said. “Of course, we agreed. Who can say no to more free food in our community?”
The Food Basket, 519 W. Madison St., Ottawa, offers regular distribution from 9 to 11 a.m. Tuesdays and 3 to 6:30 p.m. Thursdays. The mobile food pantry takes place the first Saturday of each month at South Towne Mall, 1500 First Ave. A two-hour registration window opens at 9:30 a.m, indoor distribution begins at 10. Guests are asked to bring their own boxes, bags or laundry baskets to carry food and should be prepared to wait as the process can take up to two hours.
“The truck from River Bend arrives in the morning fully loaded with everything we need to do the event, including shopping carts, pallets, check-in materials and the food,” Vicich said. “Volunteers unload, set up the space, help with check in, help distribute the food and help clients to load their cars. Throughout the month it is our responsibility to secure a space, recruit volunteers and advertise the event.
“It’s really an ideal event for community groups to volunteer together. In April we had a large group from the Kohl's distribution center help out and I think everyone had a pretty rewarding experience.”
Unlike the monthly pickup at Sheridan United Methodist Church and weekly sessions at the Food Basket, which require a bit of paperwork and proof of living in the service area, the Ottawa mobile pantries are less restrictive.
“One of the most exciting things about these mobile events is that we’re able to open it up to everyone, regardless of where they live,” Vicich said. “We see a lot of our clients from our regular service area utilizing this extra giveaway, but plenty of new faces as well.”
The menu changes every month, and Food Basket Staff don’t know for sure what’s coming until a day or two before distribution.
“But there is always some kind of frozen meat, fresh produce and nonperishables,” Vicich said. “Milk often shows up too. (April featured) pork patties, whole chickens, pork chops, pork roast, oranges, granola, cereal, instant potatoes, dried split peas, dried pinto beans, rice and pretzel sticks” for guests to choose from.
That April event — “our biggest success so far” — served more than 180 families with 40 volunteers. The Ottawa Kiwanis Club and others will help at the Saturday, May 4, distribution, and Vicich is on the lookout for groups to help in following months, as well as possible options to offer guests while they wait between registration and collection.
“As far as volunteer experiences go, these are particularly hands on,” she said. “Everything is happening at once and there is a lot more face-to-face time with clients than during regular operations. The impact seems to hit home more, I think.”
There is a volunteer form at ottawafoodbasket.org, or call 815-431-0155 or use Facebook to send a message. Food insecurity isn’t going away, so chances to help will be abundant.
“We have dates scheduled through the end of the year and we’re pretty confident that this will continue into 2020,” Vicich said.
It’s devastating that services like this still are needed, but at least people like Vicich and her colleagues and volunteers do their best to meet the demand.
SCOTT T. HOLLAND is a former associate editor of The Times who continues to contribute his column plus help with editing and writing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, facebook.com/salmagundi or twitter.com/sth749.