Julie Sleister has seen the face of need in a big way.
Since March 2020, usage of the Care Corps’ LifeHouse food pantry has increased between 45 to 70 percent depending on the month.
And she believes the pantry will be busier this year than in the past.
“The food insecurity in the community has risen to the surface since the pandemic,” said Sleister, executive managing director.
Sleister is grateful for Thrivent Financial’s annual holiday food drive, which in December 2020 netted $39,000 worth of food.
“I’m guessing it will probably be a four-month supply,” she said.
With this in mind, the nonprofit continues to need and accept donations.
“We encourage people to drop off nonperishables or fresh fruits and vegetables if you have them, because we will be able to give that away for sure,” Sleister said.
Food donated in December 2020 had a total value of $55,638 — more than $39,000 of which has come from the Thrivent drive.
Donations are appreciated as the need continues to be great.
The value of food that was distributed in December alone was $37,000.
“It’s been a lot,” Sleister said.
Sleister said 278 food boxes of various sizes based on household size were distributed in December. Recipients included people living in Fremont and Dodge County.
In November 2020, food with a value of more than $48,000 was distributed. Sleister said 341 food boxes went to those in need.
Pantry hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and 5-7 p.m. Thursdays — and now also — 4-6 p.m. Wednesdays.
“We’ve added a pantry day on Wednesday,” Sleister said. “People aren’t quite used to that yet so currently it’s slow, but we’re creatures of habit and everybody is used to it being open Tuesday and Thursday. I think it will pick up as people hear about it more and it becomes more of a habit.”
Sleister said LifeHouse also hopes to begin having a Spanish interpreter for the pantry on Wednesdays.
Those seeking food need to bring a piece of mail from the last 30 days with their address. LifeHouse also prefers to see photo identification such as a driver’s license or a YMCA card with a photo.
People new to the community, who don’t yet have a piece of mail from the last 30 days with their address, can bring a copy of their lease.
Sleister said people, who’ve never used the pantry before, have been accessing it due to the pandemic.
Reasons for the increase vary.
Recipients have had pandemic-related job losses or work hours reduced or they were quarantined or self-isolating. Children have been home more and therefore not receiving a free or reduced-price school lunch.
“So those food needs have grown,” she said.
Besides helping people who come to the pantry, which serves Fremont and Dodge County, it has been helping the community in these ways:
- In June, LifeHouse began providing the Scribner mobile pantry through the COVID-19 Task Force, launched by the Fremont Area Community Foundation.
“We’ve had at least 30 households every single month and typically more,” Sleister said.
Hooper has a food pantry, but people from Dodge, Snyder and other small areas in Dodge County have been accessing the pantry in Scribner.
“Transportation is a barrier for some people to get to our pantry in Fremont,” Sleister said, adding that area people can get to Scribner more easily than Fremont.
Sleister said LifeHouse may add another mobile pantry, which would go south in Fremont.
“We also do some delivering to people,” Sleister said. “If they have a reason they can’t get to us, we do get to them. So people who have had surgery or have COVID, an underlying condition, we can deliver food to that person.”
The Nebraska Children and Families Foundation has provided the nonprofit with a grant to purchase a refrigerated truck.
“That will be great for us to be able to transport fresh foods, meat to serve people outside of our building. We’re excited about that,” Sleister said.
Help for Methodist Fremont Health patients.
- Sleister said LifeHouse has been providing food boxes for COVID-positive patients or those who need to isolate so they don’t have to go grocery shopping, potentially exposing others in order to have food.
The hospital sends patients home with a three-day supply and LifeHouse pantry information. If they don’t have someone to go to the store for them, they can contact the pantry and someone will drop off a box to them.
Fremont Public Schools.
- The pantry is working with schools that serve students from seventh through 12th grades. If there is food insecurity in that age group, LifeHouse will provide food to the schools, which will distribute as necessary. Those are heat and serve meals.
LifeHouse also plans to move its thrift store to the site of the former Corner Bar, which allows the nonprofit organization to expand and update its pantry. Currently, people have to stand outside while waiting for food.
“We do not currently have the setup for social distancing inside,” she said.
Recent mild weather has helped, but LifeHouse is working to find a way to keep people safe and warm.
Sleister appreciates volunteers who’ve been able to help during the pandemic.
“Without them, it would be nearly impossible to keep that pantry running,” she said.
Elizabeth Valla, economic development director in Scribner, expressed her gratitude for LifeHouse.
“When COVID hit, it hit our town hard. It seemed like everyone was either shut down or locked up,” Valla said.
As the economic development director, she fielded many calls and messages of families asking where they could find any kind of help. Many issues related to food security.
“This is when I started speaking out about our town’s needs, and Fremont Area Community Foundation’s Melissa Diers hooked me up with Tera Kucera and Julie Sleister at LifeHouse,” Valla said. “I don’t think our town could have feasibly started our own food bank in time to help all these families.”
She appreciates the nonprofit’s promptness.
“LifeHouse wasted no time at all,” Valla said. “Within the time I showed them our need, to the time they came with boxes of food, it had only been a few days.”
Valla has seen good results.
“Now after eight months, we have been running like a well-oiled machine, feeding 136 individuals every month, with that number continuously increasing,” Valla said. “I coordinate the families, paperwork and time, and LifeHouse coordinates the box sizes, packs the box and brings the food all the way from Fremont to be distributed out of our community center in Scribner.”
Valla knows recipients are grateful for the help.
“We’ve had so many people come up and tell us what it’s meant to them to have someone care that they were barely making it,” Valla said. “One couple had lost both their jobs at the same time during the peak of the pandemic, and they were just so thankful that we cared enough to organize this. They couldn’t understand why an organization out of Fremont would be so willing to help our small community.”
Other area residents face different circumstances.
“Some are living on a social security check and are barely making it ... some moved here amidst everything going on and that was the last of their funds. Every single person who steps through our doors and accepts a food box has their own heartbreaking story to tell,” Valla said.
The help has eased some of the isolation.
“By Lifehouse being so willing to take us on, it’s made our community realize how we’re not just this little town in the middle of nowhere trying to survive like a lone wolf,” Valla said. “We’re so grateful for the willingness of LifeHouse to take us under their wing. I can’t thank them enough for recognizing our need and being so willing to step in with a solution.”