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Church and Community Program Director Catherine Matthews is pleased to have mayo to distribute. Photo: Julie Grant
Church and Community Program Director Catherine Matthews is pleased to have mayo to distribute. Photo: Julie Grant

Need increases at North Country food pantries

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The number of people requesting help at North Country food pantries continues to rise. Many are still unable to find work, and more older people are struggling to pay their taxes. Pantries in the region say there's always been enough food for the people in need. But there's worry that leaders in Washington, D.C., will dramatically cut food stamps, and that means pantries will have to pick up the slack.

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Julie Grant
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In Canton, Catherine Matthews is excited about mayonnaise. She just got a shipment of food from Kinney Drugs through the St. Lawrence University Hockey Team, to the food pantry she runs. And it included a big box with jars of mayo.

"I can't begin to tell you how exciting that is to my people. I can't afford to buy them mayonnaise. It is not a required food product. But look at this, when they get their package this time of turkey, and that's incredible, they're going to have a real sandwich with mayonnaise."

There shouldn't be this many people in this little area that need this kind of help.
The Church and Community program funds the food pantry and a thrift store downtown. It's paid for through a partnership of Canton churches. Matthews says the program doesn't get money from the government, and she doesn't want any. There's too much uncertainty, and too many strings attached.

"I don't want anyone telling me what I can do with it. Because if somebody walks in here and has no ID, and they don't have a warm jacket on, and they really need food, they don't have to fill out a form."

The program can give that person five days' worth of food and a warm jacket. If they come in a second time, she tells them, they will need identification.

Matthews says the food pantry has been hit hard by the increasing need.

In November alone, it gave out more than 5,000 meals to 340 people.

"I got too many people. There shouldn't be this many people in this little area that need this kind of help. There shouldn't be that many people despairing, 'how do I feed my kids, how do I get a warm jacket, how do I get shoes for my kid.' People shouldn't have to worry about that, they should be able to go out and find a job, but they can't."

Linda, who is 67, lives outside Canton. She asked us not to use her full name. Linda and her husband sold their dairy cows a dozen years back. They've made it financially since then with the profits, from farm work, and with her job in retail. But this year, things got tight when their truck broke down: "that was expensive."

They got behind on their property taxes, and Linda got worried. She's heard of people who've had their homes auctioned off by the county because they were behind on taxes. Linda doesn't think it's fair, "because they've put all their sweat, labor, their time, their life, poured into that stuff. And they can be there and just, people bid, and everything's gone."

Linda and her husband didn't want to be in that situation, so earlier this year they sold their farm equipment to pay the bills. And they started asking for help. She got a position at the Church and Community program. She makes a little money, and can pick up bread, meat, and canned vegetables to take home.

The food pantry sees older folks like Linda, as well as young, single parents, and laid-off professionals.

Tom Slater is director of the Food Bank of Central New York, based in Syracuse. He says there just aren't the same opportunities in St. Lawrence County as in Onandaga County, where Syracuse is located.

"If someone loses their job because a manufacturing plant closes, it's not like they can go to the neighborhood Lowe's."

Slater says the entire 11-county region his food bank serves has seen more need again this year. Requests have been up every year since the 2008 financial collapse. They've always been able to meet the need before. But he's nervous about what's happening in Washington now, with the Farm Bill yet to be passed, and huge cuts to food stamps still up in the air.

He says if the federal government implements those cuts, "that means people would have less resources to pick up their food through the traditional methods, such as grocery stores. We will not be able to pick up those losses."

If food stamps are cut, Slater expects more people will wind up at food pantries.

Catherine Matthews at Church and Community Program in Canton says it sometimes seems impossible to meet all the need.

"On the other hand, there's people saying people shouldn't have to live like that and I can do something about it. And so that's working."

Other food pantries in the North Country - in Gouverneur and Hopkinton - report similar support, not from the government, but from people, small businesses, and local organizations stepping up to help their own.

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