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Pantry helps get the needy on their feet

It’s not a big operation, but they’ve got a little something for everybody.

If a family in need has small children, the Union Hall Baptist Church’s food pantry committee will throw in some Sloppy Joe mix, or maybe some mac and cheese. They’ve got gallon bags of fresh cornmeal, donated from a farm in Bogalusa, Louisiana, and while the old folks know just what to do with them, the committee includes a recipe for those who have never made a pan of cornbread. Cereal, rice, noodles, instant potatoes, a bottle of ketchup — those are ingredients for anyone, any age.

But it’s more than just a sack of groceries.

“When people call and ask for help, I talk to them when they get in here, give them an ear that listens, a little encouragement on their faith. We want to let people know somebody cares,” said Don Burns, chairman of the food pantry committee. “A lot of people, when they get down, feel like the world just don’t care — and I’ve been there. I know.”

For those few people — around 50 per year, Burns said — Union Hall has kept its food pantry mission running for decades, with a six-person committee taking inventory, restocking and bagging food to go out to the needy whenever the church gets a call for help. It’s an old, simple mission for an old, country church, founded in 1852, and one that follows a precedent set by Christ himself.

“We haven’t been able to turn it into 5,000 yet, but we can help with basic needs,” Burns said.

The Union Hall food pantry is one of four local food pantries that benefit from the annual Holiday Food Pantry Drive, a joint fundraiser by The Daily Leader and the Bank of Brookhaven. The newspaper and the bank split the donations evenly among the four food pantries. The effort ends Friday, and so far $3,840 of the $10,000 goal has been raised.

Union Hall’s food pantry gets three or four calls for help each month, Burns said, though that number jumps up noticeably in November and December. As of Tuesday, the church has already received five calls this month from local residents needing a hand putting food on the table.

“It will increase in the next two weeks,” he said. “At Christmas, people’s money gets a little tight — there are property taxes coming up, people cook and eat more in the winter, some jobs like construction slow down when it’s too wet to work.”

Burns said most of the people who come to Union Hall for help are one-timers, and the most common causes that lead to their hardships are medical debt, lost jobs or divorces.

It starts with a phone call to the church office. Burns said the committee doesn’t question people over the phone, but makes an appointment and invites them down to the food pantry, in the back of the church fellowship hall. Once there, committee members ask them about their family, determine their food needs, offer encouragement, recommend government agencies that may be able to help through the rough patch.

“A lot of people say they just need to get on their feet, need a little help, and that’s something that can happen to all of us,” Burns said.

In order to keep the food pantry funded, the church “walks.” Instead of receiving, Union Hall members give on their birthdays and anniversaries, making walks down to front of the church at the end of the Sunday morning service to slip a food pantry donation into the box.

The church also has two bigger walks each year where the whole congregation drops money into the food pantry fund, and donations are always accepted.

The committee keeps an eye on the food pantry’s shelves, and when supplies begin to run low, they write out a grocery list and go shopping.

“It gives us a chance to interact with people who are less fortunate or in a situation in their life where we are able to help them, and we love helping people,” Burns said.

Anyone needing help putting supper on the table may call Union Hall at 601-833-5784 and leave a message on the answering machine — a food pantry committee member will return the call.

Anyone wishing to support the cause may donate to the Holiday Food Pantry Drive by dropping off cash or checks at The Daily Leader or Bank of Brookhaven. Checks should be made out to “Holiday Food Pantry,” and can be mailed to P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven, MS 39602.

A list of contributors will be published each day on the front page of The Daily Leader, unless donors request to remain anonymous.