Phillip Harris thought he would only need to volunteer for one day at the Welcome Food Pantry.
Seven years later, Harris is still volunteering and taking on a bigger role. He is chairman of the food pantry’s board of directors and has had the opportunity to watch it grow.
“We started with three freezers, or 2.5,” Harris said. “We opened up the walls to expand. We currently have 15 freezers. We fill and empty them at least once a month, and sometimes he twice.”
The freezer stores meat, vegetables, and finished foods from area restaurants like Chick-fil A and Panera Bread.
Welcome Food Pantry has been serving western Elmore County since 1994. Over the years, and especially in the last year, we have seen a significant increase in the number of people seeking help.
“We used to serve about 180 customers, but we rarely saw 200 customers a month,” Harris said. “It hasn’t been below 300 since July. It’s been at 350 in recent months.”
Each customer represents a family, and Harris estimates the pantry serves more than 1,000 people, possibly including children.
The need in Elmore County is staggering. According to Welcome Food Pantry, 12% live below the poverty line. 15% of children under 18 live in poverty. 9% of seniors over 65 live in poverty. Her 8,537 people in Elmore County receive the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Her 11.6% of Elmore County residents are considered food insecure and her 15.4% of children are considered food insecure.
The organization is housed in a building on Main Street, which is owned by the city of Millbrook, which allows them free use of the food pantry. Utility bills are covered by Panty and can be expensive as the exterior walls are made of concrete.
“This building is very expensive to heat and cool,” Harris said. “You can’t raise the temperature when it gets really cold.”
Executive Director Dan Pendley said the Pantry’s current building on Main Street has served the organization well.
“We’re hitting the seams in this building,” Pendry said. “This building has served us so well. It may look like a run-down little place, but it’s our home and we love it.”
To be eligible for food assistance at the Welcome Food Pantry, applicants must reside in western Elmore County. Income will be verified and applications will be reviewed annually. However, demand is high, as cars line up when the food pantry is stocked with food.
“We want to be generous,” Harris said. “We love these people, but we must be wise with what God has given us.”
When needed, food pantries go further than just food service. Harris has been making deliveries to customers without transportation. He realized how acute the need for food was under certain circumstances.
“Not having food at home means you can’t make the food you want to eat,” Harris says. “(One house) was a dark mobile home with several kids in it. We opened the cupboards. They had one box of instant grits, he had one box, nothing else. , there was an empty refrigerator.”
Within the next 60 days, the pantry will open a new facility at 1881 I-65 Service in Millbrook. The new pantry will have more parking and improved food pick-up and issue flow.
A walk-in freezer will be installed, largely funded by a grant from the Alabama Department of Environment and Community Affairs that the City of Millbrook received. The Elmore County Commission is also funding some of the renovations.
Harris hopes the pantry will continue to receive support from the community through donations as well as volunteers.
“We have a lot of great volunteers who are here every day of the week,” Pendry said. “They like what we’re doing. God drew them to this place.”
Local officials had the opportunity to tour the facility and see the food pantry in action before the move.
“This is a great example of downtown Elmore County,” Mercer said. “We have great people in our county. Whenever there’s a need, someone steps up to fill it.”