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Bluffs group works to expand pantry access
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Bluffs group works to expand pantry access

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A Council Bluffs group has started an organization to expand local access to food pantries.

Josh Weesner, director of the Our Savior’s Lutheran Food and Pet Food Pantry, 313 Story St.; and Loren Knauss, a longtime volunteer at the pantry, started the Story Street Pantry in January 2020. The organization is incorporated in Iowa and Nebraska and received 501©(3) nonprofit status in September 2020.

Building on Our Savior’s Lutheran’s four decades of experience, the group branched out and started the Carter Lake Community Presbyterian Pantry at 3030 N. Ninth St., Carter Lake, and the San Andres Food Pantry at San Andres Lutheran Church, 4440 S. 25th St. in Omaha, Knauss said. The group also formed a partnership with the existing Riverside Food Pantry at 603 Pioneer Ave. in Oakland last year.

“We started discussions with Carter Lake and San Andres in April 2020, began organizing to open the pantries in May and June to a limited number of clients,” he said. “Our client numbers increased as we built capacity and, by November, we considered both locations fully operational. Between the two new pantries, there are approximately 40 volunteers who have helped to get the pantries operational. The congregations have done a great job of supporting the pantries.”

Story Street receives USDA Farmers to Families food boxes once a month and also receives food from Food Bank for the Heartland and local businesses and residents, Knauss said. The group also purchases food using grants and monetary donations from the public.

“We worked with Carter Lake Elementary Principal Doreen Knuth while planning the USDA Farmers to Families food box distribution, and she did an incredible job of reaching out to the parents of the students, who live Carter Lake and Council Bluffs, with information on the distribution,” he said.

Each box weighed about 31 pounds and contained apples, oranges, potatoes, carrots, onions, cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, liquid eggs, sausage, hot dogs and a gallon of milk, Knauss said.

“We are now distributing more food in one week than we did in one month at the Our Savior’s Lutheran Food Pantry in 2019,” he said. “In 2020, we had over 418,000 pounds of food delivered and donated for distribution. This includes two 29,000-pound deliveries of USDA Farmers to Families food boxes — one at Our Savior’s Lutheran location and the second at our Carter Lake Community Presbyterian Food & Pet Food Pantry location. The Carter Lake USDA delivery allowed us to distribute 950 food boxes and 950 gallons of milk in just four hours on Dec. 12.”

“In 2020, we recorded a total of 2,935 family visits at four of our pantries,” Knauss continued. “That includes 6,506 adults and 3,854 children visits. This data included a full 12 months of data from Our Savior’s Lutheran, eight months of data from San Andres Lutheran, four months of data from Carter Lake Community Presbyterian and two months of data from Riverside. We are projecting we will see a minimum of 15,000 adult and children visits at our four pantries in 2021.”

“We will be increasing our fundraising efforts as we expand our services,” he said.

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The group also helps with pet needs at Our Savior’s and Carter Lake Community Presbyterian, Knauss said.

“We distribute a one-week supply of dog and cat food to people who meet the USDA income eligibility requirements for pantry services,” he said. “We receive the pet food through donations from companies and individuals. Donations are always welcome and can be dropped off at the Our Savior’s Lutheran Food & Pet Food location.”

On Friday, Story Street Pantry began delivering USDA Farmers to Families boxes to Regal Towers and Dudley Court in cooperation with the Council Bluffs Municipal Housing Authority.

“There are a number of residents who do not leave their apartments due to illness or mobility issues – and now due to the pandemic,” Knauss said. “We delivered USDA Farmers to Families food boxes to both locations in November 2020 and are now transitioning to monthly food deliveries to people who are eligible for pantry services.”

The kickoff of Story Street Pantry last year was the culmination of six years of discussions and planning, Knauss said.

“We looked at a number of factors as we studied the pantry needs in the Council Bluffs and Carter Lake area,” he said. “We looked at the USDA data on free and reduced school lunches. If a family has school-age children and the family qualifies for free or reduced lunch, they automatically qualify for The Emergency Food Assistance Program from USDA, which is the food program we utilize to distribute food items.”

“We know of a number of families in the Council Bluffs and Carter Lake area who qualify for free or reduced lunch who do not receive TEFAP or other pantry services,” Knauss continued. “Some families didn’t know they qualify, many are hesitant to go to a pantry, and transportation prevents others from traveling to existing pantries.”

The group originally planned to roll out the plan this year but moved it up because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, it is looking toward the future.

“Using Our Savior’s Lutheran Food & Pet Pantry as a logistic hub, we want to establish additional pantry locations that are within walking distance of each elementary school in the Council Bluffs and Carter Lake area,” Knauss said. “This would allow families and people living in neighborhoods to have options for needed services. We will also explore mobile pantries in areas where we can’t establish a fixed pantry location.”

Story Street is now looking for homes for two more pantries in Council Bluffs and is working on two other possible projects, too, Knauss said. The group is flexible and will shape its efforts in response to local needs, he said.

“There are incredible pantries in the Council Bluffs-Omaha area, and our plan is to build on the existing strengths in the area and fill the gaps that exist,” he said.

For more information, see the organization’s website at StoryStreetPantry.org.

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