St. Francis Thanksgiving Pantry bridges the gap for area families

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Abraham Mahshie – Contributing Writer

By 8:30 a.m. a crowd of 15 were seated warmly inside the basement Family Life Center at St. Francis of Assisi Roman Catholic Church in Franklin, each waiting their turn to select two canned items, one cereal, one dessert, a ham or turkey, and all the fresh produce they need to celebrate a proper Thanksgiving. 

Another two dozen patrons were outside in a misty November rain, huddled together wearing mismatched jackets, baggy jeans and worn sneakers mud-stained orange. A middle-aged woman in a wheelchair, her face concealed by a hot pink umbrella. An elder gentleman with a quad walking cane stood alone nearby, whiskers long, wearing a dark plaid shirt. Many smoked cigarettes until their name was called. Few were parishioners. All were in need.

St. Francis had enough food this year to provide for 85 pre-vetted families who had shown their need by proving their income, showing North Carolina residency and talking to a board member about their situation. Rev. Tien Duong, “Father Tien,” will set aside an additional 10 boxes to deliver to needy families in the community who were working on the Wednesday of the week before Thanksgiving. 

Food stamps barely last the month through for some, let alone for a holiday dinner. In many situations, a family member is disabled and can’t work. 

For Heidi Kruger, 35, and her mother, inclement weather at holiday time reduces her family’s income. 

“My husband is a roofer,” she said. Roofers don’t work in the rain, she explained, looking skyward and reflecting on the past week of showers. When roofers don’t work, they don’t get paid. “Always around the holidays.”

She is in training in Sylva to be a Bojangles shift manager. Though a Baptist who worships at Biltmore Church, Kruger said it’s the St. Francis pantry that helps feed her three sons, ages 16, 11 and 5.

“I cook,” her mother, Karen Sauerwein, 66, chimes in. They laugh. Mashed potatoes are Kruger’s favorite part of Thanksgiving. “Mine and my oldest love our potatoes.”

Does she help cook?

“Tasting,” her mother quickly responds on her behalf.

Looking at her mother, Kruger corrects, “I mash the potatoes for her.”

Estelle Webb, 73, stood alone near the door in a blue raincoat that contrasted with her bright and full white head of hair. She lives alone in Oak Forest Apartments, just behind Franklin High School. This year she will be hosting a Thanksgiving dinner with a friend “and anybody else who needs a place.”

This is her first year at the pantry. “It’s harder financially. It just gets harder.”

For the elderly without insurance and medical issues, social security is enough for groceries or medication, but not both, said St. Francis board member Peggy Pureber. She added: “If you don’t have insurance and you have a medical issue, you’re going to be in the hole for the rest of your life.”

Feeding area hungry for two decades

For more than 20 years, twice a month, year-round, the pantry at St. Francis offers two weeks’ worth of groceries to area families registered in its computer. The church uses donations to buy discounted food from the MANNA FoodBank of Western North Carolina in Asheville, including many products near expiration. 

Cash donations from parishioners allow the church to buy bread and produce from the nearby BI-LO supermarket to supplement a local farmer’s sweet potatoes and the day-old Subway rolls left on its doorstep. The pantry serves an average of 45 families, feeding about 150 mouths. In the month of October, it helped feed 290 families.

Mike Nolle, a board member responsible for Thanksgiving purchasing for the past several years, said some patrons struggle on just $16 a month in food stamps.

“That’s a laugh, it’s a joke,” he said. “You would be shocked with how many people are trying to live on $800-$1,300 a month. These people are just having a hard time making it.”

Buying for Thanksgiving starts four to six weeks before the holiday. About three weeks before the holiday, generous parishioners start pulling up with trunk loads of food – one parishioner donated 17 turkeys this year.

Nolle explains, “There are so many people right here in the county needing help.”

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