By Carol Stiffler

Last Thursday, 73 local households were given boxes of food from Marcy’s Pantry, a non-profit food pantry in Curtis that’s only been in operation for a handful of years.

Business was slow at first, according to Ethel Wells, a Curtis resident who helped launch the pantry. There were just 20-30 client families in the first few weeks.

“Then word spread, and it grew to about 50 families,” Wells said. “Then COVID hit. Then it jumped.”

The pantry served a record-high 98 households this spring, a turnout that Wells can’t explain.

A three-month average from April, May, and June is telling: The pantry serves an average of 80 households a week, which covers an average of 208 people, including 64 children, 70 seniors, and 13 veterans.

That makes Marcy’s Pantry one of the top three busiest pantries in the U.P., Wells said, in terms of volume of food given out. That statistic came from Feeding America, the non-profit food bank from which Marcy’s Pantry purchases a majority of its goods.

The pantry also purchases meat and produce locally, and accepts non-expired food and personal care items from individuals. Monetary donations help, too, and so do annual fundraisers like the Turning Music Into Meals fundraiser concert and the Empty Bowls soup fundraiser.

Spending about $6,000 on food each week, Wells knows the pantry isn’t supplying households with enough food for the week.

Cars line up early for the Thursday-morning distributions, which begin at 10 and end when the line is exhausted, usually around noon. Donations sometimes come in at the same time, like those from Newberry resident Thaddeus Cox. His family has a tradition of asking birthday party guests not to bring gifts, but to bring food donations instead. This year, his party netted 102 pounds of food.

“That’s more than me, which is 70 pounds,” Thaddeus said.

“The goal is to beat the weight of the birthday child,” said his mother, Jessica Cox.

“If we get more person than food, that’s not the best.”

Thaddeus’s 102 pounds set a new family record, which had previously been 98 pounds.

Wells, who was on hand to help receive the donation, loved the concept.

An expansive list of volunteers keep the pantry running smoothly, with routines that are now so engrained they hardly need to talk during distribution days. Volunteers greet the client, who waits in his or her vehicle, learn the size of the household, and return to the pantry where the box will be filled. Food units – like fruit, vegetables, dairy, and protein – are counted out based on the number of people living in the home.

Clients can be eligible one of three ways: Based on income, ongoing participation in initiatives like SNAP and  WIC, or due to sheer need of food, like after a house fire. Clients fill out an eligibility form annually, using the honor system to report their income and their needs.

Wells and the pantry volunteers are careful not to host doubts or assumptions about their clients’ needs.

“We don’t know, so we don’t judge,” Wells said.

Sometimes, a pantry client “graduates” from the program, like one woman did recently.

“She told me  ‘You can take me off your list now. I got a job,’” Wells recalled, beaming.

Some recipients want to contribute their time in lieu of money, and show up nearly every week to help with distribution.

Wells said the pantry is always happy to accept more volunteers. They’re also eagerly aware that gardens are starting to produce, and sometimes over-produce. Local gardeners can donate excess produce to the pantry for weekly distribution. Juice and canned fruit are always in short supply, Wells said, as well as diapers, wipes, and feminine hygiene products that aren’t available through Feeding America.

Cash donations can be dropped off at the State Savings Bank in Curtis.

The annual Empty Bowls fundraiser is set for August 2 this year at the Community Building in Curtis. A variety of soups will be sold for $5 per bowl. The event begins at 10 a.m. and ends when the supply runs out.