By 10:30 a.m. Friday, the line stretches down the sidewalk in front of Downtown Cooperative Church Ministries, the largest food pantry in Richmond County. The doors open at 11 a.m., but clients like Martha Ward know bags of food are limited. Arriving a minute later could mean going hungry for the week.
“If it weren’t for these people here, I don’t know what I would do,” Ward said. “I look forward to coming down here every week for my food.”
The food pantry, supported by 14 partner churches, used to serve all the clients who walked or rode the bus to get there. But money shortages, increases in food costs and more clients are forcing volunteers to turn people away.
“It’s really a heartbreaking thing to turn people away but it’s just something we’re forced to do,” said LaKeya Stewart, the executive director.
Ward, who quit her job a few months ago because of health problems, and three neighbors from Harrisburg were some of the first in the door. They piled into a car with bags of frozen chicken, juice, English muffins, canned fruits and vegetables, and pistachios. They’re aware the bags have gotten lighter but are grateful as long as the ministry doesn’t close its doors completely.
“As long as I have food in my belly and a roof over my head, I’m blessed,” Ward said.
For the first two years of the economic recession, church donations and grants helped the pantry on Eighth Street meet needs while other charities across the nation and in Augusta were hit hard. A $9,000 grant from the Community Foundation of the CSRA helped Downtown Cooperative Church Ministries sustain funds during 2011 as church donations began to dwindle.
But there’s little relief in sight for the coming year.
The ministry was not eligible for the community grant again and efforts to reach out to local businesses have only put a dent in the problem.
“They’ve been responsive but still it’s not enough,” Stewart said. “We need support from the larger community.”
In 2011, the number of clients served increased by 60 percent and church donations dropped by 25 percent. Monthly costs rose by $1,500 to $4,000, she said.
Food donations are provided by the Golden Harvest Food Bank, but operation costs and additional needs won’t be met in 2012 if local businesses and individuals don’t step up to help the hungry.
“You can only ask a church to do so much,” said Joe Johnson, the board chairman and a member of Thankful Baptist Church. “The only thing we can do is rely on grants, individual people and churches stepping up their giving.”
The food pantry serves about 70 people per day and 7,000 families each year. Twenty dollars feeds a family of five.
“We need more people to help,” Stewart said. “You don’t have to be rich. You don’t have to be a billionaire.”