It’s called the “Blessing Box” and you can help yourself. Eloide Pinter fills it with non-perishable foods and then leaves it open to anyone who comes to St. John’s Lutheran Church looking for a bite to eat.
But Pinter’s daily inventory revealed a disturbing trend: Ready-to-eat foods are snatched up more quickly than canned goods that must be mixed, prepared and cooked. It tells her there’s an increase in homeless people with no kitchens or appliances to prepare food themselves.
“The easy, pre-packaged stuff you can just pop in a microwave goes faster than the canned vegetables like peas,” said Pinter, church secretary at St. John’s in Peru. “We have a security camera and we see a variety of people show up. It’s all ages.”
Churches, food pantries and those who manage self-help kiosks or “micro-pantries” all agree homelessness is on the rise and those without kitchens are spurning food donations that require any substantial preparation.
And that’s putting something of a strain on the charitable organizations most likely to get walk-ins and unannounced visits by the homeless. Churches and micro-pantries need things like snack packs of cheese and crackers, sealed fruit cups or a microwavable pasta dishes. Boxes of stovetop macaroni and canned goods, on the other hand, will be politely declined.
One local priest is trying to get his flock to reserve easy-to-open foods for the parish office and to send the rest to the nearest food pantry.
The Very Rev. Paul Carlson runs the La Salle Catholic Parishes and doesn’t need canned vegetables for the parish office he needs ready-to-eat meals for the homeless who knock on his door seeking food donations.
“The best things are the light things,” Carlson explained. “There are useful canned goods such as Spaghetti-O’s, but overall it’s difficult for people to take cans home with them. They come on foot or bicycle or with pushcarts and cans are just too heavy.”
Most canned goods, that is. Any metal container with a pop top is useful to the hungry. Pinter has no problem giving away pasta in easy-to-open cans — think Chef Boyardee or Franco-American products — because the homeless can usually find a public microwave oven to heat their meals. Any canned item that isn’t easily opened and consumed might go untouched.
“We have so many canned vegetables that just sit there,” agreed Patty Eichelkraut, an assistant Oglesby city clerk whose duties include stocking the micro-pantry outside city hall.
“Other canned stuff, like soup, will move in a day or so.”
Whatever you do, don’t throw away your canned goods. The churches and micro-pantries might not want them but the brick-and-mortar food pantries still do.
“We still need everything, including the microwavable foods,” said Beverly Banks, executive director of the Mendota Area Christian Food Pantry.
Similarly, the head of an Ottawa food pantry encourages donors to support her with the uncooked foods — sloppy-joe mix like Manwich is a perpetual need — and to also send ready-to-eat products to the micro-pantries.
“If people want to donate to the micro-pantries, which I think are fantastic, that’s great,” said Beth Vercolio-Osmund, director of development for the Ottawa Community Food Basket. “Those will serve people who don’t have access to kitchens.
“But when people come to our food pantry, it’s usually people who have access to kitchens. We don’t so much give ready-to-eat food items as we do ingredients for preparing meals.”
Jan Martin runs the Hall Township Food Pantry and she confirmed a growing divide between hungry people who need food for their kitchens and the hungry people who don’t have kitchens or even can-openers.
She keeps a stash of can-openers handy to give to those without kitchen implements.
Ten years ago, only a small portion of Hall’s hungry had no kitchen or kitchen implements. Martin estimated 2% of her clients didn’t own a can-opener. Today, that figure is closer to 10%, meaning she, too, needs foods that can be heated in a microwave or simply eaten out of the container.
Tom Collins can be reached at (815) 220-6930 or TCollins@shawmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_Court.