When people needed food, the pantry provided.
When people needed clothing and household items, the pantry expanded.
This mission has been bringing people from all walks of life together for decades. Those people include not only the volunteers who staff the building four times a month and the folks from across the county who come in need of food, but also the countless community organizations, many area churches and the unpaid personnel who work behind the scenes every day to make sure groceries are bought and supplies are stocked.
Now, the Webster County Food Pantry and its people are in need of a building more worthy of all the time, sweat and effort that made it into a cornerstone of the community. They need a building that will help it sustain that reputation for years to come.
"It's come a long way, and we've had this building for about 20 years. It worked real well, but we're just outgrowing it," said Vernon Wolf, chairman of the Webster County Pantry Board. "This is a great project, great outreach, and we want to see it succeed. When you're on the front lines, you see it helping families. You hear them say, ‘We don't know what we'd do without you,' because they've lost their jobs, or one thing or another, and it fills a gap."
The Webster County Food Pantry is located on the southeast edge of Marshfield in a warehouse-like building with a tin roof and pale yellow metal siding. It looks to be about 60 feet long, is two stories high and maybe 2,700 square feet. It's difficult to heat and impossible to cool. Industrial-sized freezers are the workhorses that hold steady behind it.
Now, the few windows that line the outside reveal a pressing need for change - the place is filled to the brim, not only with food, but also with T-shirts, jackets, shoes, children's dolls, coffee mugs and water bottles, just to name a few.
"It served our purpose," Wolf said. "But now we've come to a juncture in the road where we need another building."
On average, the Webster County Food Pantry serves about 1,000 people per month. That number has held steady despite the growth of King's Food Pantry, which is in Seymour in southern Webster County, and the continued service of the Elkland Christian Church food pantry in the northern part of the county. In fact, the Webster County Food Pantry even took on 32 new households, or95 people, in November. That means, in all, it provided for 370 households, or 1,136 people, last month. The pantry is open the first and third Saturdays of the month from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. and the following Fridays from 9a.m.until noon.
"Marshfield is not immune to one of the greatest, and growing, epidemics our nation faces right now, that of food insecurity," said Rob Foster, past president of the Marshfield Area Community Foundation. "All things considered, we recognize and fully support the role the Webster County Food Pantry has in this area to be extremely vital. We are even more encouraged by their efforts to improve the quality of their facilities and the level of service they offer our citizens who are in great need."
The Webster County Food Pantry gathers food to distribute in all sorts of ways. Of course, there are food drives at local schools and churches, but it also takes purchases to be able to distribute the 2 tons of food that goes out every week. That money comes from a number of sources, including theMarshfield Area Community Foundation, which participates in a collaborative effort with the Ozarks Food Harvest and a gift from the Walmart Foundation State Giving Program as part of the Ozarks Million Dollar Hunger Challenge. That effort resulted in a check for more than $11,000 being presented to the pantry last year.
Foster said the community foundation's local board will also continue its Valentine's Day fundraising event, "Romance at the Ritz," as an annual tradition to raise money and awareness for the local food pantry. The Feb. 11 event will be the third annual dinner and dance at the Starlight Room, above the Ritz, with a limited seating of 100 people and all proceeds going to the food pantry.
No one who "works" for the food pantry is paid, though travel is reimbursed. Jerry Nehl, the pantry's director of operations, and Betty Funk, who faithfully assists, use their own vehicles and spare time to decide on monthly menus, pick up and organize food items, and often load and haul donated furniture. They also coordinate with the Boy Scouts, youth groups and many other organizations to make sure the pantry is open on convenient nights during the week for them to volunteer.
Nehl, a 64-year-old retired freight handler for Roadway Express Trucking, has been with the pantry since nearly the beginning. He was part of the Catholic group that formed a Knights of Columbus Council in Marshfield that ended up joining with those at Marshfield United Methodist to make the pantry happen.
Just a few years later, the pantry became an ecumenical venture, with about 15 churches involved, and eventually obtained nonprofit status. It's flourished ever since.
Nehl also remembers when the Copperfield Apartments burned down several years ago, displacing everyone in the 15-unit complex. Then, the Webster County Food Pantry only stocked food.
"They needed clothes, so we started doing clothes, and then furniture and appliances," Nehl said. "We've got an outstanding community. When there's a disaster, people want to come out to help. And on any given Friday or Saturday (at the food pantry), there'll be a half dozen different denominations working together. With a diverse family like that, there's barely anytime someone comes in the door that a person doesn't know. That creates a family atmosphere."
Food and clothes worked together for a while, but it won't anymore. To get back into compliance with regulations and be able to receive goods from the Ozarks Food Harvest, the food bank for southwest Missouri that serves more than 300 hunger relief organizations across 28 counties in addition to long-term relief sites in Joplin, the Webster County Food Pantry must move its food supply to a different building.
"We've just outgrown the building," Nehl said. "It's an old building. It served its purpose well, and we'll still use it, but to meet the need of the demand that's developed in the community, we'll need a new building for the food. That will be better for the food and for everything."
The cost estimates for a new building are around $112,000 for the basic structure that is projected, plus finishing work, which the pantry will try to complete through as much volunteer work as possible. For more information about the pantry or its operations, call Nehl at 859-5340. To contribute toward the pantry's new building, make a check payable to Webster County Food Pantry and send it to P.O. Box684, Marshfield, MO 65706.
Liz Manring, a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, is the granddaughter of Jack and Etta Jean Watters of Marshfield.