The Country Pantry continues lending a hand to community members in need

Published Sep 12, 2018 at 4:01pm

CLARK MILLS — “I love what happens in this space.”

Whether it’s to provide a wholesome meal for their families or they’re in need of some assistance when they’re out of a job or have an ill family member, volunteers at The Country Pantry, 7616 E. South St., have been touched by their clients’ stories, according to Mary Zimbler and Rick Wright.

“Some people come in here and tell their life stories and you just listen,” said Wright.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Wright said as he shared his compassion for helping others.

Wright further explained that individuals will come with a list of needed food items and volunteers will help them fill their grocery bags.

“We also bring the bags to their cars or other times, we’re going right to their homes” for delivery, he said.

“Sometimes they’re (the clients) are crying because they’re so grateful,” said Zimbler.

Zimbler calls the basement of the Church of the Annunciation Roman Catholic Church, where the Country Pantry has operated for approximately 43 years, her “second home.”

“I’m a basement dweller,” Zimbler laughed as she gave a tour of the pantry to members of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce Sept. 5.

On primary distribution days, which occur once a month, the volunteer said clients will be lined up well outside the church for about three hours as they await to retrieve their groceries that include meat, fresh produce and eggs. Zimbler said the pantry also takes on the challenge in providing foods for those with special dietary needs like low sodium, no sugar and gluten-free. The Country Pantry is open once a month for large distribution of fresh produce, frozen produce, dairy and dry/canned goods, but is also open for families seven days a week, when the need exists.

“On our paperwork, we request that clients list any special dietary needs to better assist them,” she said. “We serve many people who are diabetic, and for the elderly, we try to give them small cans of foods so they don’t feel overwhelmed. We would give them a 26-ounce can of spaghetti sauce, for example, and they’d tell us they were afraid to open it because they’d have it once and then the rest would go to waste. Many of our seniors are widowers, so they’re only having to cook for one person.”

Zimbler said about 140 seniors are served by The Country Pantry each month, and that volunteers will even go to local senior living facilities and host cooking classes and demonstrations. During the demonstrations, the pantry will also give out food storage containers to those who attend.

“Many of our elderly have had a stroke or they’re home-bound,” Zimbler said. “Maybe they get Meals on Wheels, but it’s not enough for them. Some don’t have cars, so they can’t make it here. We have a partnership with LutheranCare, which provides a bus here. Most can’t make it down the stairs” into the church basement, “so they wait outside and we bring the groceries out. It’s actually a big outing for them.”

With a 13 local-parish partnership, The Country Pantry has between 70-80 regular volunteers, but Zimbler admitted they could use additional strong arms and legs to help carry bags of groceries out to their clients.

“We also have about eight people from The ARC who come here once a week to help out and a team from UCP (Upstate Cerebral Palsy),” Zimbler said. “We also have individual church teams come monthly to do a variety of jobs.”

The Country Pantry mainly serves residents of Clark Mills, Clinton and Westmoreland, although in recent months, clients have also shown up from Oriskany, New Hartford and Whitesboro.

Asked if they’ve heard from former clients who no longer need the pantry’s assistance, Zimbler said, “We do hear some very wonderful stories, like so-and-so got a job, and we make sure to tell our volunteers. But we also keep them on our list for some months because we know it can take time for someone to get back on their feet.”

On a regular basis, Zimbler said The Country Pantry serves anywhere between 800-900 individuals a month, which includes between 250-275 families. She said those numbers tend to go up near the holiday season in November and December.

For Thanksgiving in November, “We try to give the families a gift card toward a turkey and we provide all the trimmings,” Zimbler said. “We’ll even give them a recipe for green bean casserole because that tends to be a popular favorite, and all the ingredients to make the dish.”

During distribution days, The Country Pantry also provides assistance to clients in filling out Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) applications. They also have representatives from Fidelis Care work with or schedule meetings with clients to help provide health care needs to them and their families. There is also assistance to those who have other counseling needs, Zimbler said.

“Several of our clients, especially from the Clinton area, have either lost their jobs or they may have a family member who has cancer and money to get their loved ones back and forth to treatments may first need to come from their food budgets — their food money is the first to take the hit,” Zimbler said.

Within the last two months, the volunteer said they have received about 39 families from outside the pantry’s service area that they helped connect with their local food pantries. But The Country Pantry has also added that many new families to its clientele, she said.

Stewart’s Shops provide the pantry with “milk cards” so that clients can receive a half gallon or gallon of milk, as well as “egg cards” for a dozen eggs. Savicki’s Paris Hill Farm Market on Route 12 will also bring their mobile produce stand to offer clients fresh fruits and vegetables. Other foods such as meats, canned goods and boxes of cereal come from the Food Bank of Central New York at a discount, Zimbler said. Grocery stores such as Hannaford, Wegman’s and Price Chopper also provide donations of food. The Country Pantry also receives much support from the United Way, Indium and several other local businesses.

When clients arrive to the Country Food Pantry they receive a three-day supply of food for each family member.

“If we have the food we want it off the shelves,” Zimbler said. “We’d rather see it go out to our families.”

The pantry is set up with numbered stations for different items such as meats, dairy, juices, frozen foods, etc.

“We usually have around 30 volunteers on distribution day going to each station and filling the (grocery) bags,” Zimbler said. “We try to fill the bags in approximately two minutes to get them out the door.”

“Our clients really don’t want to be here,” the volunteer said through tears. “We’ve had clients request they come here at night because they don’t want to be seen, and we’ll do that. It’s very confidential. No one says, ‘When I grow up, I want to not be able to provide my kids with what they need.’ Some people do make it” from here, “and they end up becoming volunteers...But we did have two young clients last year who decided to commit suicide together and that shouldn’t be happening.”

Zimbler went on to tell the story of the pantry’s assistant coordinator who once sought their support because she, at a young age, had just lost her husband to cancer.

“She had nothing and because her husband was a pastor, they were used to traveling between churches all the time,” the volunteer described. “But she managed to get back on her feet.”

There’s also been times when pantry volunteers have had to call for an ambulance because a child passed out and a mother had gone without eating for at least two days, Zimbler said.

“We try to give hope to people and let them know we’re always here,” she said. “If they need to, they can come here every week until they’re back on their feet.”

The Country Food Pantry will accept donations of food but prefers monetary donations so they can purchase foods in bulk through the Food Bank.

In conjunction with Sodexo Senior Living at LutheranCare and Presbyterian Homes, with support from Kraft Hockeyville, The Country Pantry will also hold a pancake breakfast fund-raiser from 7:30-11 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 22 in the Community Room at the Martin Luther Building of the LutheranCare Campus on Route 12B in Clinton. Cost is $7 per person and children under age 5 are free. There will be raffles and door prizes, and all proceeds will benefit the pantry.