by Terri Winder
Timid but determined, the young boy approached the secretary at the elementary school. He waited patiently for her to acknowledge his presence, then he confided, “I need one of those bags.”
“One of those bags?” she asked, puzzled.
“Yeah, the bag with food in it. I need one of those.”
The school secretary motioned for him to come with her. She opened a closet and then showed him a backpack provided by Transitions Food Bank. “You mean this?” she asked, kindly.
“Yeah,” the boy replied, an audible sigh of relief carrying the word from his lips. “My dad left us, and my mom doesn’t have any money to buy food. I’m the oldest kid so I have to help her. Can I please have it?”
The school secretary knew that the boy needed more food than what one backpack held. That wouldn’t feed his mother and four siblings. She helped make a referral so the family could get food.
“It used to be that we would mostly get low income or homeless people coming to the food bank,” director Sandra Asbury says, “but more and more we are seeing middle class families, mostly young couples, who are having an increasingly difficult time making ends meet in this economy.
“Presently we serve about a thousand families a month; 300 of them with the mobile pantry. Most of the people who come to us wait until they are desperate.
“A lot of pride usually gets swallowed before people are able to bring themselves to ask for a handout. The majority of the people are truly needy and very appreciative of what they get.”
Transitions Food Bank began about a half dozen years ago, formed from a wish made by Gina Hunt. Gina had lost purpose in life and was basically a recluse.
One day, Sandra visited her and asked, “What’s important to you, Gina? What would it take to get you away from your soap operas and back into real life?”
Gina thought for a moment and then answered, “I want to start a food bank in memory of my friend.” Gina’s friend had died of status epilepticus, a seizure that would not end.
“We can do that,” Sandra promised. At that point she wasn’t quite sure where to begin, but lack of knowledge had never stopped her before, and Sandra was determined to help Gina.
As it turned out, Sandra was the right woman in the right place at the right time. Utah Food Bank was delighted to have someone volunteer to oversee an outlet in San Juan County, where there was immeasurable need coupled with limited resources.
Now, Gina proudly calls the program her food bank, recognizing that it has made a world of difference in her life as well as the lives of so many others.
Gina and other Transitions clients with food handler’s permits — as well as community volunteers, and even a few workers who would not ordinarily volunteer but who need community service hours — help stock the shelves, sort food into boxes, and deliver it.
Currently, Transitions Food Bank manages regular donations from not only the Utah Food Bank and USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), but also frequent local contributions, specifically from Blue Mountain Foods and Clark’s Market.
The Boy Scouts of America does an annual drive, as does the U.S. Postal Service. Transitions can apply for help from Feed the Children, if their supplies are running low.
They recently welcomed a semi-truck shipment from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Humanitarian Services, the second such delivery they have received.
“A lot of people help us collect the food and then get it to where it needs to go,” Sandra says, noting they partner with entities throughout the Four Corners and programs like Early Intervention, the diabetes clinic, and senior centers.
They distribute food from Transitions day treatment centers in St. Christopher’s Mission, Monument Valley (where residents of Navajo Mountain pick it up) and Montezuma Creek, as well as the pantry that is open five days a week in Blanding.
The mobile pantry makes deliveries to Monticello, Eastland, Dove Creek, and Mexican Hat. Transitions clients hand out boxes. “It makes them feel important,” Sandra explains. “They love helping.”
In the schools, backpacks of food (like the one the boy was asking for) are given to students that have been referred by principals or teachers. The backpack program is intended to help feed children over a weekend or holiday when they can’t eat school breakfast and lunch.
“We get different guidelines from different programs,” Sandra says of the eligibility requirements and their reporting responsibilities. “Recipients have to fill out an application. Their income needs to be at least 25 percent below the poverty level standard as set by the government.
“However, if someone comes to us hungry, we don’t turn them away. We have special boxes made up from donors who understand these people’s situations. If they are willing to show ID and sign a receipt, they don’t leave without some kind of assistance.
“As far as I know, we have not had anyone abuse the system. And a lot of people who get food from us come back to volunteer. ”
They also often bring back anything they aren’t going to eat. According to Sandra, “One time a woman brought back cans of tuna and said, ‘I don’t know what this is or how to use it.’ I took her back into the kitchen and showed her how to make a tuna sandwich. I also explained how to use it in a tuna casserole.”
“But sometimes we get stuff we don’t know what to do with, either,” Ed Hawkins, manager of the Blanding site admits, laughing. “Some of what we get may be stuff that’s not moving from the store shelves.
“For example, I remember getting bottled sushi in marinade sauce. Another time we received a case of diet Dr. Pepper ice cream syrup. When we get that kind of thing I put it out front and let those who think they’ll use it take it.”
And as for the little boy who asked for the backpack? Transitions helped his mother with the family’s immediate needs until she could get help from government programs.
“There is often a waiting period after signing up for church welfare or food stamps,” Sandra explains. “We are here to bridge that gap.”