Mat-Su food insecurity: It’s not just a ‘big city’ problem

Food bank providers and support agencies are seeing higher need through the pandemic, and a national food insecurity group expects need to increase by 5%.
Published: Feb. 22, 2021 at 5:25 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Karey Gaston makes a round trip drive every Monday from the food pantry she runs near Meadow Lakes to the Food Bank of Alaska in Anchorage to stock up on supplies. Her food pantry, operated by Blood-n-Fire Ministries, has seen a growing need In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough since the pandemic began.

“It tugs on my heart,” Gaston said about the number of phone calls she gets from people who have never had to ask for help before.

Every Thursday afternoon, volunteers come to Blood-n-Fire ministries to make food bundles and boxes that are distributed in a drive-through line every Friday evening. Gaston says the food pantry is now helping from 450 to 500 families every month.

One of their clients is a woman named Susie, who asked that we only use her first name. “It’s very humbling to walk through that door for the first time,” she said.

Susie says her bed and breakfast in Wasilla was doing excellent business until the pandemic hit. She was forced to close it temporarily because of the drop in tourism caused by COVID-19 travel restrictions. Susie says even though bookings are picking up, she still has to come to the food pantry for help, for which she is grateful. “They made it a very safe and very comfortable place to come, and they’ve shown me a great deal of respect and compassion,” Susie said of the volunteers at Blood-n-Fire Ministries.

“People are insecure right now with not knowing what’s going to happen from one day to the next with COVID still happening,” Gaston said. “We’re not going to be able to solve all of their problems, but if we can help them with a little bit of food for them and their children, then that’s the next step to where they can feel better about themselves and about their community.”

Food insecurity in the Mat-Su is a problem that has grown during the pandemic, according to a non-profit organization called Feeding America, which says it links 200 food banks across the country, assisting 46 million people.

Feeding America publishes what it calls its “Map the Meal Gap” survey. The last full report was based on data from 2018, which the organization says showed that 12.6% of the Mat Su’s population, approximately 13,070 people, struggled with having enough food. The organization’s projection for 2020 is that the number increased to 17%.

Mat-Su Food Bank executive director Eddie Ezelle says the number of people coming to its food pantry has averaged about 2,000 per month. He says there has been an increase in requests for assistance from the 18 to 20 volunteer food pantries scattered throughout the Mat-Su Borough, which the food pantry supplies. He encouraged people living in the Borough to find ways to help their neighbors if they are struggling.

“I tell people all the time if you’ve got an extra loaf of bread or something, and your neighbor needs it, share it with them. If you’ve got a local church or pantry near you, share stuff with them. That’s what it’s all’s the sharing part” Ezelle said.

Ed Harris was pushing a shopping cart through the snow at the Mat-Su Food Bank parking lot Monday. Harris said it was his first time coming to a food bank. He called it a humbling experience, but he encouraged people who need help to not let pride stand in their way. “People sometimes think it’s prideful and everything to not come to the food bank, but that’s kind of wrong thinking. If you need something, you need to say something. You need to come out and do something about it.” Harris said.

The food pantry run by the Mat-Su Food Bank is open Monday-Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. You can call 907-357-3769 for information, or call 211 for information on other volunteer food pantries around the Mat-Su Borough.

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