WASILLA -- Food pantries around the Valley are gearing up for higher than usual demand for holiday baskets to help residents short on money provide a Christmas meal for their families. "The two days before Thanksgiving, we served more than 560 people," said Eddie Ezelle, director of the Wasilla Food Pantry. "There is an increase of people in need."
Ezelle couldn't say how those numbers compared to last year -- the pantry doesn't have those records handy, he said. But serving that many people in the three hours the food pantry is open kept things busier than usual.
Wasilla Food Pantry, run by the multi-church group Valley Christian Coalition, doesn't put together holiday baskets. It distributes boxes of food to families who stop by the food pantry at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Wasilla each week. But Ezelle said the agency also provides food to the Salvation Army Mat-Su Valley Corps for its holiday baskets.
"We're all shooting for the same goal," he said. "Our goal is to get food to people who need it."
TURKEY, HAM, TRIMMINGS
More than 1,500 holiday food baskets are being prepared by churches and food pantries between Trapper Creek and Palmer this year. All are planning to distribute more baskets than they did last year. That list includes local food pantries -- several smaller churches or community groups may also be preparing donations for needy Valley residents.
Holiday baskets are generally handed out at Thanksgiving and Christmas to people who can't afford to make the traditional holiday meals. At Thanksgiving the basket is generally a turkey with a box full of potatoes, gravy mix, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and other items.
At Christmas, the box could include turkey or ham with all the trimmings. Many groups include extras such as noodles and rice or tuna to help meals go further for families feeding children who are home from school during the holiday break.
Salvation Army Major Verna Hughes said her group saw higher-than-usual demand for holiday baskets at Thanksgiving this year. She expects to hand out about 600 Christmas baskets, well over last year's number of 535.
Hughes said the demand for holiday baskets and emergency food from the Salvation Army's food pantry is up about 10 percent this year.
Even more dramatically, an outreach program run by Crossroads Community Church on Tait Drive near Wasilla is planning to more than double the number of Christmas baskets it makes this year, from 225 to 500.
Sean Carpenter, vice president of Blood -N- Fire Outreach for Food and Clothing, said his group easily went through the 500 Thanksgiving baskets they put together last month.
"There are lots of people in the Valley who are in need," Carpenter said.
The group has been serving the needy in the Valley for more than five years but mostly on a word-of-mouth basis. It partners with some human-service agencies to help people in distress, and it draws on donations from its congregation of more than 1,000 and from other churches to stock its food pantry.
EFFECTS OF ECONOMY
Farther up the Parks Highway, church and community food pantries are seeing their list of "regulars" grow.
"Our numbers are higher than they've ever been. We're serving over 225 families a month. I think last year, it was about 190," said Jenny Krepel, administrator of the Trapper Creek Community Food Bank, which serves Trapper Creek, Sunshine and Talkeetna.
Krepel said about 50 seniors rely on the food bank to fill in where their fixed incomes stop. Several families who use the food bank rely on it only during the winter, when seasonal jobs are over. Some are clients who moved to Alaska to find that wages are lower and the cost of living is higher than they expected.
Fran Lynch, who directs the Willow United Methodist Church food pantry, said a tough fishing year and a slow construction season have driven up the number of people in need of food in the Willow and Houston area.
"We had some people in May who said, 'You won't see me anymore, I got my job for the summer,' and then we saw them in July," she said. "We're seeing people who are working -- maybe working minimum-wage jobs -- and the money is not stretching as much."
Several food pantries said they still need items for holiday baskets. Others needed items not for baskets but to replenish their shelves so they can help families in January and February.
"It's wonderful that people give to us during the holidays but there's definitely a need around the year. We don't want to have bare cupboards in January," Ezelle said.
Find Rindi White online at adn.com/contact/rwhite or call 352-6709.
How to help, or how to get help
Many groups contacted for this story are already preparing baskets for delivery and have stopped taking names of families in need. However, most said if a family needed help providing its holiday meal, they would find a way to help.
SALVATION ARMY MAT-SU VALLEY CORPS
• Planning for 600 baskets
• Distributing baskets Dec. 21-23
• Criteria to receive baskets: Meet federal low-income guidelines to qualify for food stamps
• Still needed: turkeys, chickens, hams, stuffing, Cool Whip, potatoes, cranberry sauce, bread or rolls, butter or margarine, yams, eggs, Jell-O or pudding, canned fruit, vegetables, cake mix, milk, gravy packets or jars of pre-made gravy, foil roasting pans, fresh fruit, noodles, canned juice, rice, soups, tuna, two-pound bags of flour or sugar
• How to donate: Stop at the Salvation Army office in Palmer at 209 W. Evergreen Ave. between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. The office is closed between noon and 1 p.m. Call 745-7079.
BLOOD -N- FIRE OUTREACH FOR FOOD AND CLOTHING
• Planning for 500 baskets
• Taking names until today, distributing baskets Friday and Saturday.
• Criteria: If in need, call.
• Still needed: Yams, marshmallows, brown sugar, olives, rolls, dessert items such as premade cookie dough or powdered mixes, canned vegetables such as green beans, corn and peas.
• How to donate or sign up: Call Blood -N- Fire at 383-1789.
VALLEY OPEN BIBLE FELLOWSHIP IN BIG LAKE
• Planning for 150 baskets
• Taking names until today and handing out boxes Dec. 23 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
• Criteria: Anyone in need.
• Still needed: Canned fruit and vegetables, boxed goods such as cake mixes, smaller-sized bags of flour and sugar. Cash donations allow the church to purchase items inexpensively from the Food Bank of Alaska.
• How to donate or sign up: Call 892-4253 or stop by the church, located at the corner of Jojoba and Lodge roads in Big Lake on Wednesdays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
WILLOW UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
• Planning for 100 baskets
• Distributing baskets Friday and Saturday.
• Criteria: Proof of residence in Houston or Willow area and a photo ID
• Still needed: Turkeys, stuffing mix, fresh vegetables and fruits such as potatoes, carrots, onions, apples, oranges and bananas, canned fruit and vegetables, cake mixes, icing, eggs, butter.
• How to donate: Call Fran Lunch at 495-8292 or bring donations by the church at Mile 67.5 Parks Highway between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. this week.
TRAPPER CREEK COMMUNITY FOOD BANK
• Planning for 185 baskets in Trapper Creek and Sunshine
• Distributing baskets Dec. 22 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
• Criteria: Must meet federal food stamp income guidelines
• Still needed: Turkeys and hams, canned fruits and vegetables and cans or boxes of pre-made food such as chili, soups and items that can be cooked on a wood stove.
• How to donate or sign up: Call Talkeetna Gifts and Collectibles at 733-2710 to arrange drop-offs or stop by the food bank on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In Sunshine; the food bank is on Walstead Road near Mile 4.2 Talkeetna Spur Road. In Trapper Creek, go to Trapper Creek Fellowship Lutheran Church at Mile 1.5 Petersville Road.
By RINDI WHITE