Man does not live by bread alone, and nobody understands that like the folks at Prodisee Pantry
story by Robin Fitzhugh
He sat across the client interview table from me, John Deere hat pulled down low over his weathered face, a shy smile showing through his graying beard. This 56-year-old father of two, grandfather of seven, who has supported himself for 40 years as a truck driver and mechanic, who never asked for or even wanted a day off, drove himself to the ER last week because he was having a hard time breathing. He was prescribed an antibiotic for pneumonia and then got a call two days later that he has lung cancer. Not used to asking for help or encountering a problem he couldn’t fix with his hands, tears rose and receded in his eyes as we went through the process of getting him a box of food and talking with him about other agencies that might help him get through the dark days ahead.”
This man’s story is just one of several hundreds that Prodisee Pantry volunteers hear every Tuesday morning. The inspiration of Prodisee Director Deann Servos and some fellow members of her church in 2003, the largest food distribution center in Baldwin County began with a volunteer-only staff on the campus of Spanish Fort United Methodist Church. According to Servos, “We ordered a truckload of food to give away with no money in the bank, but one love offering from the church paid for the whole thing.” The program continued to expand, serving a growing number of families each week, and was able, with a $250,000 grant from the Community Foundation of South Alabama, to serve as a major clearinghouse to meet the needs of individuals and families impacted by the BP oil spill in 2010.
The emergency need for food as well as cleaning and hygiene supplies arose again in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan impacted the Gulf Coast. Prodisee was still seeing their regular clients but was suddenly trying to help those who had lost homes, businesses, and places of employment. The next summer when Hurricane Katrina hit, Prodisee volunteers swung into action again, meeting the needs of an even greater number of individuals and families who had lost everything they owned. Now in its 15th year of operation, almost 4,000 volunteers annually serve on average 1,150 families a month and in 2018 distributed 113 tons of groceries to local families. Prodisee clients must fall within the income criteria established by the USDA for food assistance, but in emergencies like natural disasters or the recent government shutdown that saw local government and Coast Guard families without paychecks, Prodisee’s doors are always open.
Prodisee is about hunger, but the administrators understand it is also important to serve other needs clients may have. Each Tuesday on distribution day, local agencies have representatives on hand to address issues for veterans, families facing crisis pregnancy, medical and dental problems, legal issues, job placement, SNAP/food stamps eligibility, housing, voter registration, financial and budget planning, and other crucial needs. Many Prodisee clients do not have internet access or reliable transportation, so the ability to meet in person with a professional advisor on hand to answer questions is invaluable.
“She was an elementary school teacher in another state. After a move to Baldwin County for her husband’s work and with a special-needs child of her own, she made the decision to home-school her child, and they became a one-income family. When her husband’s small company was absorbed by a larger out-of-state corporation, his job was eliminated and he was out of work for several months. Suddenly this middle-class couple found themselves having to reach out to friends, their church, and Prodisee Pantry for help. With her head held high and a twinkle in her big blue eyes, she has promised when they’re back on their feet that she will be a Prodisee volunteer and pay it forward.”
Because Baldwin County is one of the fastest-growing areas in Alabama, and the public persona is affluent beachside communities and large-scale residential developments across the county, Servos says hunger is invisible. Hunger is the elderly woman sitting next to you at church, the single mom with two kids counting change to buy milk at the grocery store, your neighbor who got laid off from his job he’s had for 10 years, or the kid in class that can’t pay attention because he came to school on an empty stomach. Many jobs in our coastal communities are seasonal, including tourism-related cleaning and food service jobs, agricultural employment, landscape work, and house painting. Those workers rarely have money to set aside for the off-season so Prodisee Pantry is there to be a short-term solution for the working poor.
Prodisee Pantry runs on volunteers. Fundraisers like the Turkey Trot walk/run each October, the Fill the Plate campaign each spring, and the PP Golf Tournament in May at Rock Creek Golf Course are responsible for a large portion of the pantry’s annual income, and none of those events would be possible without the hard work of community volunteers. Food distribution days each week require helpers to get food ready all week long, and well over a hundred interviewers, warehouse workers, data managers, and parking staff are needed to make Tuesdays run smoothly. In addition to regular weekly volunteers, many local businesses give their employees time off to lend helping hands and church groups, civic club members, ROTC and honor society students, and children in Summer Vacation Bible Schools from around the county enjoy serving the hungry as well. For information on programs and volunteer options, go to www.prodiseepantry.org.
“The big man with the curly beard had a different plan for his life when he was a college student 20 years ago. Now, because he lost the home he shared with his elderly mother in Loxley in a flood and was without sufficient money for repairs, and because his mother’s chronic health needs caused him to lose his job, he and his mother live in his truck. They park overnight in a big box store parking lot and exist on his mother’s very small Social Security check, with a small dog for companionship. They are part of Baldwin County’s invisible homeless population with both mental and physical health needs. Prodisee provides special foods that do not require refrigeration or heating up to keep them fed and got them access to medical care through Franklin Health and placed them on the list for subsidized housing. All their problems are not solved, but Prodisee volunteers provided them with dignity and hope along with food because, as the words from the Gospel of Matthew that are painted on the pantry wall read, ‘I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'”