AK: Feeding the hungry Susitna Valley residents

Volunteer Ron Caldwell assessing the stock in the non-regulation room. (Photo by Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna)

The Upper Susitna Food Pantry, with locations in Talkeetna and Trapper Creek, provides food assistance to hundreds of Susitna Valley residents. While many volunteers work together to help in that process, there is one person without whom the pantry could not function as it does. KTNA’s Phillip Manning spent a day with her, and has this story:

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On a recent Friday morning, I met with LouAnne Carroll-Tysdal outside the Upper Susitna Food Pantry’s Talkeetna location. Within moments of meeting up, we were in her truck and on our way to the supermarket, Cubby’s Marketplace.

The trip to Cubby’s is part of LouAnne’s routine every Friday morning. This week, eggs and produce are on the list. On the way to the store, LouAnne told me that people sometimes just can’t buy produce. She said, “You know, they have to buy toilet paper, paper towels—and fresh fruits and vegetables just don’t hit their radar as often.”

This time of year, buying produce often means going to the store, but LouAnne has plans, and grant funding, to source produce from local farmers in the summer. Growing season is just starting, though, so off to Cubby’s it is.

After buying carrots and apples in addition to eggs, LouAnne checked the donation bin at the front of the store and got pretty excited to see butter, something she said the pantry doesn’t often get.

LouAnne collected the donated food, and we headed back to the pantry.

By 10:00 a.m., it’s time to start distributing food. The food pantry has two federal programs, a general one for low-income households, and an additional program for low-income seniors. The pantry is in a pretty small building. It’s almost possible to stand in three rooms at once. The people who were waiting in the small hallway for the early rounds of distribution are hesitant to give their names, but had no shortage of praise for LouAnne.

LouAnne Carroll-Tysdal and new volunteer Holly Beard (Photo by Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna)

LouAnne said one reason people may be hesitant to identify themselves to a reporter is that there is a sense of shame for some that they rely on the pantry’s assistance. She said she wants to remove that shame and treat everyone with dignity. She said there is “no judgement” at the food pantry, and that the volunteers there just want to help.

When people come to the pantry for food, the first room they go to is for the Temporary Food Assistance Program, one of the federal programs we mentioned earlier. The amount and type of food distributed is pre-determined based on the size of a client’s household. Volunteer and retired school nurse Barb Mercer said this month will be a “generous” one, including a whole frozen chicken.

After they saw Barb, families go to the produce room. There, volunteer and retired schoolteacher Doug Smith had this week’s selection of fresh fruits and veggies.

Like everywhere in the pantry, the number of items a family gets from the produce room depends on the number of people in their household. “We used to not have fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Doug. He credited LouAnne’s efforts with bringing fresh produce. Doug added, “People love it.”

The final room is what volunteers refer to as the “non-regulation room.” It’s called that because the food was either donated or purchased directly, and isn’t subject to the rules of the federal programs. This room has a set of shelves along one wall with a variety of options. Everything from canned vegetables or tuna to pancake mix and rice. Families pick the items themselves in here, and there’s even a shelf with snack items. Each household is allowed one additional selection from that shelf.

“Having to come to a food pantry sometimes can be kind of an undignified experience for people.” LouAnne said. “We should be able to offer them choice, so that they have a choice of foods that they want to eat.”

Activity at the food pantry seems to come in waves, with periods in between arrivals used to restock shelves. I catch back up with LouAnne during one of those lulls. It’s not always easy, because she is almost always moving. Now, she’s in her small office, packed high with boxes of food. She’s going over donations for a summer lunch program for kids. LouAnne acknowledged that having a good meal can help children in school, but she said her reasoning is simpler than better grades.

Volunteers Barb Mercer and Doug Smith showing off some of the interesting variants of popular products that show up. (Photo by Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna)

“I feed kids so they’re not hungry,” LouAnne said. “The thought of a hungry child in our country with so much plentitude, it just bugs me.”

Managing food distribution for so many families is a constant balancing act. Many times throughout the day, LouAnne and volunteers shuttle food from a storage conex into the pantry.

This amounts to a lot of work. Last year, volunteers spent thousands of hours gathering, stocking, and distributing food for those in need in the Northern Susitna Valley. That doesn’t count more than a thousand hours that LouAnne herself spent beyond what is technically a part-time job. In total, their efforts led to almost a hundred tons of food making it into the hands of families in the community. Rather than being satisfied with that, LouAnne Carroll-Tysdal, perhaps unsurprisingly, is planning still more projects to feed those in need.