Smithfield Herald

Food closets aim to meet basic need

Dee Howell, cochairwoman of the Smithfield Area Ministries food closet, volunteers on Nov. 19.
Dee Howell, cochairwoman of the Smithfield Area Ministries food closet, volunteers on Nov. 19.

Note: As part of N.C. Nonprofit Awareness Month, the Herald is profiling nonprofits in the community.

As Thanksgiving and Christmas approach, two of Smithfield’s food closets are helping people avoid hunger, not only during the holidays but throughout the year.

Smithfield Area Ministries

The food closet run by Smithfield Area Ministries operates out of Centenary United Methodist Church on Market Street. The food closet serves the whole county, said Dee Howell, co-chairwoman.

Started in 1984, the food closet will serve as many as 3,000 people this year, Howell said. The group accepts food donations and also money, which volunteers use to buy groceries. The food closet is open from 9:30 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday and 2-4:30 p.m. Saturday.

Volunteers pack large brown grocery bags full of food. Each has the basics: cans of vegetables, cornmeal, bread, margarine and dried milk. For the homeless, volunteers make sure to pack pop-top cans in case they don’t have a can opener.

To get food, people need to bring a voucher from a local agency, such as Johnston-Lee-Harnett Community Action, the Department of Social Services or Johnston County Schools.

About 50 people volunteer, usually working one shift a month. The food closet relies on donations from the community to operate. Howell said the closet has enough donations during the holiday season, but those donations taper off during the rest of the year, especially in summer. But summer is one of the most needy times because children are out of school and can’t get free or reduced-price lunches.

“It’s a way of helping those who are in need,” Howell said. “Because we all need things at different times, and hunger is the basic need of anything.”

Howell said many people who come to the closet often say, “I never thought I would have to ask someone for food.” But the unexpected often happens. Some people lose their jobs; others lose their homes to fire.

“We have so much, and we never know when something could happen; that we could be in need of help,” Howell said. “And this is a way of helping others.”

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army on Bright Leaf Boulevard also has a food closet. Open Monday, Wednesday and Friday, people can come in to get a bag of food and avail themselves of other resources, including life coaching and help with utility bills.

To get help, people must first provide proof of income and an ID to prove they live in Johnston County.

Ronnie Carranza, community assistance coordinator, said more people have been asking for help recently, including those normally considered middle class. “It’s been really busy,” she said. “We’re seeing a lot of people from all different walks.”

The food comes from donations, mostly from Johnston County Schools and a handful of businesses.

The Salvation Army is also providing food boxes for about 400 families at Christmas. Any leftover food will go to the food closet.

Linda Toler, who both works and volunteers for the Salvation Army, said she loves volunteering because the Salvation Army is her church. And she enjoys seeing peoples’ happy faces when they receive the food. “They’ve got such a warm and loving heart,” Toler said.

With all the boxes, no one will go hungry on Christmas, Toler said. “Just to know that when they wake up on Christmas morning, they’re going to open up a nice box of food,” she said.

Commanding Officer Leo Gagné said the Salvation Army serves about 2,500 families each year with food and other services. “It’s sad that we live in such a rich country when right now on the streets, people are actually hungry,” he said.