Vidalia program keeps food on table

Published 12:00 am Monday, July 31, 2000

VIDALIA , La. – If you think no one’s going hungry in the Miss-Lou, think again.

Those who line up at Feed the Hungry the last Saturday of every month to get a box of groceries to last them through the 30 days look like someone’s grandmother, the faithful church member, the man who just retired from the business down the street.

Take Opal Matthews, for example. The 69-year-old Sicily Island woman was barely making ends meet eight months ago when she heard about Feed the Hungry.

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Since Social Security and a Medicare supplement are Matthews’ only income, she has to keep close track of every penny. &uot;But this way, I can get the basic groceries I&160;need and maybe have enough money left over to have meat at a meal,&uot;&160;Matthews said.

Matthews and her friend Mary Wilson arrived at the feeding ministry’s Vidalia office at 9 a.m. Saturday – even though the boxes are not distributed until noon.

&uot;We got here early so we won’t have to park on the side of the highway,&uot; Matthews said, referring to times when lines of as many as 85 vehicles have extended around the facility’s circular drive and along the shoulder of U.S. 84.

Matthews’ story is typical of the clients of the nonprofit, which started in 1997 as a feeding ministry of the nearby Vidalia First Assembly of God.

Between 60 and 65 percent of the organization’s 200-plus clients are senior citizens, most of whom live off meager Social Security checks and perhaps $10 of food stamps a month, said Linda Bonnette, director of Feed the Hungry.

&uot;What can you buy for $10 a month?,&uot; asked her husband, C.J. Bonnette.

Senior citizens’ family and friends often try to help them on their own, said Linda Bonnette. &uot;But you can only do that for two or three months, because you have your own bills to pay,&uot; she said.

Others may be struggling with temporary financial difficulties.

One woman’s husband left her and her children, leaving them with only food stamps, said Linda Bonnette.

Another couple who lives in a mobile home near Vidalia had to decide whether to stock their empty shelves or pay their $700 electric bill so the power would not be turned off.

&uot;Everyone’s got a story, and that’s part of my job – to listen,&uot;&160;said Linda Bonnette.

In cases where people need food immediately, the nonprofit does its best to issue emergency food boxes. Feed the Hungry has given away about 400 pounds of emergency food in July alone.

In all, the organization now gives out about 10,750 pounds of food per month, including the regular 50-pound boxes of canned goods, produce, eggs, butter and other staples. That is up from about 4,000 pounds a month late last year.

The demand for Feed the Hungry’s services has grown to the point where Linda Bonnette has had to urge newcomers to arrive at 2 p.m. instead of noon on distribution day so cars will not have to line up on the side of the highway.

Still, at 11:30 a.m. Saturday cars were lined up all the way around the circular drive.

In one car sat Jimmy Williams, who lives only a few blocks away from Feed the Hungry.

Before he retired, Williams made a living as a welder in Mississippi.

Now he and wife Beatrice live off Social Security checks and come to get their food box every month.

The couple sat patiently in their car, Beatrice fanning herself in the summer heat. Many people don’t want to wait even a short time to get assistance, Jimmy Williams said.

&uot;People want something for nothing,&uot; he said. &uot;But yes, I&160;know a whole lot of folks who need this (food).&uot;

A retired business owner who would not give his name said he gets food stamps to help feed himself and 11 grandchildren. &uot;But that’s $35 a month&uot; in stamps, he said.

In addition to coming from a variety of backgrounds and situations, said Linda Bonnette, Feed the Hungry’s clients come from a large geographic area.

Recipients come from as far away as Wisner, La., and the Mississippi towns of Roxie and Woodville. Sometimes they hear about it through the news or family and friends; sometimes they are referred by other nonprofit organizations.

&uot;In Natchez, the Salvation Army, the United Way, the (Guardian) Shelter and others refer people to us,&uot; Linda Bonnette said.

&uot;The need isn’t just in Concordia Parish. It’s all around us.&uot;