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Inflation, USDA program cuts may cause Hardin County’s largest food pantry to close

CAM Director Jessica Prieto pushes a cart full of donated groceries to put on the charity’s increasingly bare shelves.

Hardin County’s largest food pantry is asking for the public’s help to remain open.
The Christian Assistance Ministry, or CAM, is in danger of closing of its doors to those in need of food if the organization does not receive additional donations.
CAM Director and board President Jessica Prieto said there are many factors contributing to the pantry’s plight.
“In 2021 we were able to feed 716 households and 1,356 individuals. In 2022, we helped 1,000 households and almost 2,000 individuals in Hardin County with food and groceries. That is an increase of more than 35% in one year’s time.
“In the wake of the pandemic, unemployment and food insecurity has dramatically risen, and rural communities are the hardest hit by hunger. There are more people in our community than ever that need help with food and groceries.
“Unfortunately, with the rising costs of food and the decreased ability to access free food from the USDA, we are in danger of having to close our doors. While food and transportation costs rise, food and monetary donations from the community have remained the same,” explained Prieto.
The pantry operates as an emergency food service, which allows families or individuals to apply, and if they qualify, to receive free food and groceries every three months.
“We try to give people who need our assistance enough groceries to last the entire three months. We are not just giving out one or two boxes of food – they are receiving a large shopping cart full of groceries. We really do not want anyone to be struggling with hunger until they can receive help from us again. We also want to be continue to be here for when people need us,” Prieto said.
The quarterly food assistance is due to CAM partnering with Second Harvest of Middle Tennessee and the U.S Department of Agriculture, which allows the pantry to buy food at a deeply discounted price.
“But even those prices have increased. Groceries we were purchasing for a couple of hundred dollars two years ago, now cost $1,000, for the same amount of food. The food we buy from Second Harvest and the USDA is still less than buying from the stores, but still more than what we were paying in years past,” said Prieto.
She added, “The USDA also provides free food to us each month, which used to be plentiful, but in the recent months has become very limited. There used to be more than 20 types of items available for free each month. Now it’s five, maybe six items, available for free. This means we are having to spend more money for the same amount of food. In the last eight months, we have seen our food costs increase by 77%.”
Prieto said the pantry has no paid staff and is operated solely by volunteers. While the organization did have a rainy day fund, she said, almost all of it has been spent due to rising food and other operational costs.
“Approximately 85-90% of money received goes directly to buying food. We have no labor costs, but we do pay rent and utilities, and have some other operational costs such as fuel and repairing of equipment. The pantry is truly run with the sole intent of providing food and groceries to those in need. However, if our situation does not change, I would say currently we only have enough funds to stay open another two, maybe three months,” Prieto said.
This is why the pantry is seeking help from the community.
“We are currently in need of food and monetary donations. All money donated allows us to provide food to those who truly need it. By making a one time, or monthly, tax-deductible donation, you can truly make a difference in the fight against hunger.
“Food donations are also greatly needed. We accept any canned goods and shelf stable items. Together we can make a difference,” Prieto explained.
She is also encouraging local businesses, organizations and churches to assist in feeding those in need.
“We have great partners now, but we really need more. Several churches help through collections on our behalf and I am starting a letter writing campaign to others asking for help.
“Also, if any business, organization, group or individual would like to fund raise on our behalf we would welcome it and assist in any way we can. We need all the help we can get if we are going to remain open. We could also use more volunteers. If there is anything someone can do to help we will graciously accept,” Prieto said.
She also wants the community to know that CAM pantry is its own entity.
“I think a lot of people think we are a part of Jesus Cares. We do rent our space from them and they have graciously partnered with us to accept and process applications of those in need of food and groceries, but we are our own, separate non-profit,” Prieto clarified.
She added she is grateful to local grocery stores in Hardin County.
“On a weekly basis, Kroger, Walmart and Piggly Wiggly do donate perishable items such as meat and produce. It varies and sometimes we do have to supplement, but it is a huge help. With that said, we can only store so much due to space and we don’t want any spoilage or food waste, which is why we cannot accept perishable items from the public, but we do need nonperishable items such as canned meats, milk and other goods.”
The Hardin County CAM pantry started in Hardin County in 1997.
“We appreciate the support of our community and we hope they will continue to contribute to our mission to ‘let no one in Hardin County go hungry,’ but honestly we currently need more help to continue our mission.
“It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in Hardin County are food insecure, meaning they lack access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food.
“Those affected are not just numbers. They are real people, from your elderly neighbors with mounting medical bills to the family down the street that is forced to choose between heating their house in the winter or putting food on the table. For others, it’s an unexpected job loss, illness or catastrophic event.
“So again, please help us to help your neighbors not go hungry,” appealed Prieto.
Monetary donations can be sent to HC CAM, P.O. Box 134, Savannah, Tennessee, 38372.
Food donations can be dropped off at the pantry, 250 Eureka St., Savannah, at the back of Jesus Cares, Monday and Wednesday from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

(Ed. note: This story was first published in the Jan. 12 print edition of The Courier.)






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