The problem of hunger in Upshur County, and what volunteer organizations are doing to combat it, was told to the Gilmer Kiwanis Club recently by Dr. Don Warden, one of the volunteers with the Upshur County Shares Food Pantry.
The pantry is an effort of the Upshur County Ministerial Fellowship, a private, nonprofit 501 (c) 3 organization, and is housed in a storefront on Buffalo St. provided by the First Baptist Church of Gilmer.
While their work to help hungry families down on their luck is becoming fairly well known, they also are working with teachers to help homeless high school and junior high students. It is estimated that there are six to eight in the Gilmer School District.
They also help freed prisoners with food to get a new start, when necessary, Dr. Warden said.
In Upshur County, “you find a spirit you don’t find in many East Texas communities,” Dr. Warden said.
The Food Pantry is under the East Texas Food Bank, based in Tyler.
Last year, the local food pantry served 16,000-plus people, with more than 6,000 boxes of food.
“There were 238,000 pounds of food distributed,” Dr. Warden said.
Mel Small, another of the Food Pantry volunteers, is “the brains behind the operation,” said Dr. Warden. “He has more than 20 years experience in groceries, and checks the order list two to three times a day (against supplies in the East Texas Food Pantry’s big grocery warehouse off the Loop in West Tyler).”
Therefore, they are able to get food items at basically 20 cents on a dollar, Dr. Warden said. While donations of nonperishable good are always appreciated, they are able to make cash donations go farther, because they are charged about 20 cents a pound overall for food stuffs. The cost pays the overhead of the Food Bank.
At the Food Bank, in addition to canned goods and other nonperishables, there are pallets of produce, such as onions, grapefruit, cabbage and other items.
Where they previously had to pick up the items at the Food Bank, now the Food Bank delivers to its various client locations.
“$1 equals eight meals,” Dr. Warden said.
They will often get large boxes of bread and pastry items to break up and distribute. This may include bread, cakes, rolls, donuts—they don’t know what they are getting until they open the large box—but it will be some flour item.
From 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Monday and Wednesday, the Food Pantry headquarters a half block off the square on West Buffalo St. “is a madhouse,” Dr Warden said. That’s when clients come to pick up their food.
There are boxes for households of one or two people, and other boxes that can serve up to eight.
One family they serve has 19 people living in their home. It started with a brother losing his job, and his family, including four children moved in. Then other family members found themselves on hard times and also moved in.
The host family was the only one with a home.
In another case, a homeless man began showing up regularly to get a box of food.
He said he lived near Big Sandy.
“My wife asked him how he was going to get his food home,” Dr. Warden said.
“He replied ‘I’m going to walk,’” he said. Mrs. Warden found somebody to drive him, and found him and maybe seven other people living under a tarp in a thicket off Hwy. 155.
Until recently, Emma Thompson was a fixture when the Food Pantry was open. A grandmotherly type, she was displaced when a hurricane hit the Golden Triangle area in Southeast Texas some years ago. Her husband, who stayed behind to look after their property, was killed, and she arrived in Gilmer with just what she was carrying.
She repaired stuffed toys and gave them to children who came in with their parents.
“In four years, she missed one week,” Dr. Warden said.
Now, because of health, she is not able to help as regularly.
“We’re there to help people,” Dr. Warden said. “That’s all we’re there for.”
“You tell people here of a need, they’ll meet it,” he said.