These three volunteer every Wednesday to prepare for the Thursday food distribution at the Agape Food and Clothing Room, a small building at the rear of the Salem Church of Christ.
"Gordon and Nancy were recently commended for the great work they are accomplishing," Church of Christ Minister Mike Yates told The News.
Yates was referring to a recent monitoring visit by the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas, the Norfork-based agency which helps supply the Agape Room with food to distribute to the needy.
The report found the Agape Food and Clothing Room "was overall satisfactory in compliance in Membership Criteria and Agency Practices."
The inspection by Food Bank Director Linda Finley and employee Katie Shay found the Salem food distribution center was following good practices when it comes to food safety, refrigeration and frozen storage, sanitation, pest control and other categories that insure that clients enter a safe enviroment and leave with good food, free of contamination.
But the inspectors did not stop with their "satisfactory" rating.
A letter from Finley goes on to state, "Gordon and Nancy, you and your volunteers are doing a great job with your resources and we are proud to work with you...The Agape Food and Clothing Room should be commended for the exceptional manner in which it serves the ever increasing number of those in need in the Salem, Fulton County area."
"I hope we're doing the Lord's work," Gordon Barnett said. "I think we are," when asked about the praise from the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas.
|Barnett got involved in the food distribution program in the late 1980's, when the Church of Christ opened the first Agape Room||in the old Salem Elementary School Library. The program grew to serve more than 100-families a week.|
"We operated out of there for years, even though it wasn't the best place," Barnett said. "We had problems with roof leaks and things like that."
About 2005, the church began considering building a food room at the back of the church property.
"We knew there was a need for a good building with lots of parking," Yates said. "Gordon agreed to become the director of the Agape Food Room when we opened there."
According to Barnett, that was in April of 2007 and, five years later, he is still at it. He is, in his words, a "permanent fixture," even though he would be glad to hand his duties over to someone else.
"Nancy, Kathy and I come in on Wednesdays to get ready for Thursday," Barnett said. "We work here, while two other volunteers travel to Walmart to pick up produce, bakery goods, canned goods and other food. They contribute 400 to 1,200 pounds of food each week."
On Thursdays, four other volunteers take over to distribute food and keep track of who is receiving it. The Agape Room is open to Fulton County residents, who are asked to sign up by providing their name and address and a drivers license to document the address.
"People are lined up each Thursday, waiting for us to open," Nancy Barnett said. "We know there is a need, and it is always increasing."
Statistics kept by Agape Room volunteers show that, in 2010, they served an average of 235 families a month. In 2011, that number rose to 258 families, and shows no signs of decreasing this year.
While the number of families needing food assistance is on the rise, the amount of assistance from the federal commodities program is falling.
In 2010, the commodities program provided $28,284 in food to the Salem center. In 2011, only $21,939 worth of food was delivered.
Agape had to come up with about $1,500 more to make up the difference, increasing its food budget to $9,652.
"It's not surprising that demand for food is going up, considering the condition the country is in right now," Barnett said. "There is no employment available, and people know we are here."
The Food Bank of North Central Arkansas coordinates the USDA commodities distribution, and the Walmart food donation program. The food bank also obtains food from other sources and provides it to Agape and other organizations in a nine county area through a shared management fee, to help cover its operational costs.
"I'm finding there is added stress on hunger services in our communities," Linda Finley told The News. "Because of rising food prices and higher gas prices, more people are having to seek help."
Finley is particularly distressed that about 33 percent of children in the north central area live in poverty and face issues with "food insecurity."
"Communities seem to be rallying behind organizations that provide food assistance, however," Finley said. "People are stepping forward to offer financial support to help food distributions continue."
According to Finley, the Food Bank of North Central Arkansas has standards in place to try to assure that food assistance goes only to the truly needy, the elderly and disabled.
"Agape is doing a great job," Finley said.
The Agape Food and Clothing Room also receives food from the Rice Depot -- a food bank in Little Rock -- which ships food to Hardy for pick up at 50-cents a box.
The Church of Christ provides financial support, as does the Pickren Hall Baptist Church and Wild Cherry Methodist. In addition, many individuals make contributions, and Shaver's Hardware and Salem Schools hold food drives that help supply the program.
"Our main source of income is donations," Barnett said. "I have said before, 'I don't know how we can keep doing this, we're running out of money,' but, somehow, money shows up to keep us going. The good Lord is watching over us."
Besides distributing food, the Agape Room accepts donations of clothing, which is sorted and displayed on racks, and offered for free to those who need it.
"People carry a lot of clothes out of here," Nancy said, adding that donations of clean, gently used clothing are appreciated.
The Agape Room is open for food distribution every Thursday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the rear of the Salem Church of Christ.