Volunteer who was helped now gives back at pantry and produce distribution.

Volunteers accompany clients as they file through the Westgate Shelterhouse for a food pantry and produce distribution on July 11. After checking in and “shopping” for shelf-stable foods, clients head over to the produce table to pick out corn, apples, watermelon and bread.

The final stop leads them to Norm Nelson, the volunteer in charge of distributing meat. “Family of three?” he asks a client. “That means you'll get around 4 pounds of meat. If you go a little over, it's gonna be all right.”

Nelson has been volunteering with Mid-Ohio Foodbank since he suffered a stroke in 2011. A former Big Ten Conference football referee who had never smoked or gotten drunk in his life and kept his weight under control, Nelson never anticipated that he would be one to suffer a stroke and be put in a position of needing assistance.   

“My Social Security disability [benefits] had not kicked in,” he says. “Someone told me about the food pantry, so I went in there and they allowed me to do, what they call, a full shop.”

Most clients visiting the food pantry Wednesday were doing a full shop, receiving dried and canned goods, hygiene products and more. But after receiving this assistance back in 2011, Nelson says, “If you give me something, I'm not going to take it for free. I'm going to give it back.”

From that day on, Nelson started restocking shelves at the Mid-Ohio Foodbank pantry. When his two foster sons would finish school, he would bring them in and teach them how to restock the shelves. 

Mid-Ohio Foodbank works with more than 650 partner agencies to operate over 670 food supply programs. Lutheran Social Services is the partner agency for the Westgate Shelterhouse distribution, which is entirely run by LSS and receives some of its food from Mid-Ohio Foodbank. When LSS started up the Westgate mobile pantry, they asked Nelson, also an LSS volunteer, to help out.  

Jennifer Hamilton, director of communications for LSS, says working with Mid-Ohio Foodbank allows both entities to effectively contribute to the overall mission of fighting hunger. “They get [the food] and then get it to us,” she says. “We utilize our resources and our volunteer connections and our other community connections with churches, and then we're able to get it out into the community, to people who are in need of it.”

Since a Mid-Ohio Foodbank study from 2011 to 2014 revealed the necessity of healthy food for overall wellness, food pantry distributions like the one at Westgate Shelterhouse have emphasized distributing fresh produce at these sites. Some sites throughout Central Ohio serve strictly as produce distributions.

“You pick what you like,” Nelson says to a woman sorting through the meat selection of the day. She debates between two different packages of pork, to which Nelson encourages her, “Take ’em both.” After choosing a final package, Nelson concludes the transaction, saying, “And that’ll be it.” With that, he sends the woman on her way to the car with a cart full of canned food, produce and more than four pounds of meat.

“It's crucial, especially [for] families with children or seniors or people who might have chronic health conditions. They need access to nutritious food like produce that they may not be able to afford [or have ready access to otherwise],” says Jill Jess, media relations manager for Mid-Ohio Foodbank.

In order to be eligible to receive food from a pantry or produce distribution, families must be below 200 percent of the poverty level for their family size. The poverty line for a family of four is $25,100 annually, so any family making $50,200 or less per year is eligible for pantry and produce distribution. People wanting to volunteer can go to midohiofoodbank.org or lssnetworkofhope.org to get more information.

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