Welcome back to the Cache Valley Podcast! With Thanksgiving and the holidays upon us, we couldn’t think of a better place to kick off this wonderful time of the year than with the Cache Community Food Pantry! We had the privilege of interviewing Matt Witaker, Director at the Food Pantry for this episode. Matt has been with the Food Pantry for the past 16 years. He has seen some amazing changes in peoples lives, thanks to the service that the Food Pantry provides for the community here in Cache Valley. Hear some of the great things they have been able to do over the years, the stories of people impacted by the Food Pantry and what you can do to be a part.
Q: What is the Cache Community Food Pantry?
Matt: The food pantry, in a nutshell, is an emergency food assistance program. We provide food services to families and individuals who are struggling for one reason or another. Maybe they lost their job, maybe their hours got cut, maybe they discovered they’ve got cancer. Medical bills bring a lot of people here. Often times it’s a combination of all of them.
Q: What are the Origins of the Food Pantry?
Matt: If you go right back to the beginning, it was about 1972. BRAG (Bear River Association of Governments) were already working in the social services field and they saw a few people that they were servicing needed a little bit of help with food. They started serving about 25 families a month with a little box of food and over time it grew.
Joyce Tarbert was the director before me. She was the first director, I’m a second, and she saw a need for it to be separate. So in 1993, it was separated and it became incorporated as Cache Community Food Pantry incorporated. They kind of hopped around the valley a little bit and we ended up here at this location. The location served us great: we were centrally located. We’re right on Main Street so people know right where to find us. But in about 2008, at a really bad time because that’s when the economy tanked, we thought we need a new building. Who picks a time like that to build a new building?
We put some feelers out there and it was responded wonderfully too; I could give you an hour’s worth of stories about the new building alone. We built this one in 2012 and moved in here and it was great! The problem with our old building was we just didn’t have any room for the food in the building and the people so, if anybody came they had to wait outside; in the middle of winter and the middle of summer. When we got the new building done, people came in and they were emotional you know, some were quite emotional and said things like, “thanks for doing this for us we feel like we’re human beings again”.
The Goal of the Food Pantry
Matt: Our goal as a food pantry is to help people to get to where they don’t have to come to the food pantry. We don’t want customers. We’re the opposite of your normal business and people don’t want to be clients. They would rather buy their own Thanksgiving dinner today but as I mentioned earlier life happens. Sometimes you need a little bit of help, but that’s one of my favorite parts of my job.
Yeah, I love to give you food. When they come in people are stressed and they don’t want to be here. I love to be able to give them food, see some of that stress kind of, “okay I got food on the table for the kids again”. But what is love, even more, is when you fast forward eight months to a year when they come in and they put a check on my desk or they unload their car with food. We tell them “you don’t have to do this” and they say “I know but I want to. Because of your help we were able to go back to school, I was able to get training, I was be able to pay off that medical bill and now I don’t have to come.”
That’s my favorite part of the job. That tells me what we’re doing works. If they use the program right, they’re gonna take the money that they would have spent on groceries or hygiene products (sometimes we have hygiene products out there) and they’re gonna go pay down the bills. They’re gonna do what ever it takes and it frees up some money to help get them out of the hole. Without the help, they don’t have what it takes to get out of the hole. They’re just maintaining. They’re not progressing, so if we can give them that help they can progress. That’s what I love to see.
Clients Turned Volunteers
Matt: There’s just two of us that work here at the Food Pantry. Even some of my volunteers that we depend on are previous clients. On my Thursday night crew there’s a couple of those that used to be clients. They’re great! I love them out there. When clients come in and say they don’t have to come to get food anymore they always say, “if I can ever do anything, let me know.” So I called them I said, “hey, I got a Thursday night I’m starting up I’d love to have you run that for me,” and they’re here every Thursday night.
It’s great because the clients that come in that are going through what they went through, they can say, “I’ve been there. Things are gonna be okay.” When you’re struggling, people like to hear from somebody else who’s been there, That means a lot to them they’re like, “you’ve been here and you did it? I can to.” It’s great to have them.
How the Food Pantry is Helping
Bradey: That’s a very rewarding piece that I could see here, that you would never get in any kind of work, at least not in the same way.
Ryan:It definitely shows, specifically how this food pantry is helping the community, like not only are you guys getting people to the point that you know they can have food on the table, but you’re also creating that opportunity for growth and then creating the opportunity even further for them to give back which that’s amazing. That’s really cool. Thank you for sharing that.
Matt: When I started here, I’ve been here almost 16 years, that was not my intent. I graduated college with a business major and a Spanish major. I was going to get some experience for three four or five years.Then, I was gonna move on up the ladder and go somewhere else.
Three four or five years later I find I like what I do. I like working with the people that make it go; you’re donors and the people that need it you know I love that success story I get to see that here. Some of my donors have amazing stories themselves.
Matt: There was this older gentleman, he’s Japanese, he comes down once a year and gives us a small donation in cash. One year I said, “hey, I’d like to hear your story.” He told me that when he was a young boy, because he was Japanese, he was put in one of the Japanese internment camps. He says, “we would stand in line at the local food pantry because that’s where they would give their food. This is my way of paying it back.”
Like lots of my donors, same thing, they said I’ve been to where I needed this before and I want to help others. You know he could have been bitter, and let that run his life. But he chose to let that go through service to others and what an amazing guy and to have him tell me his story. I thought what a wonderful life he’s lived what.
Q: How does the Food Pantry work?
Matt: There is an application process and we don’t require much. They fill out a brief application for me, I do ask for a proof of income and a proof of address something that this shows they do live in Cache Valley. There is an income limit. Now that being said, one of the best things about the pantry is were not run by the government. If you go to apply for food stamps, for example, if you’re one penny over the answer is, “I’m sorry I can’t help you,” but because we’re here the workers at Workforce Services can say, “Hey, we’re not out of luck. You can go down to the food pantry and they can help you there.”
Our limits are a little bit higher. Food stamps serves at 125% of what the government considers poverty, we serve at 150%. If they don’t qualify for food stamps we provide a safety net for those that they can then come down here and get some help. Now at any given time, I have a handful of families who if I look strictly at money, how much they’re earning, they’re over income. Some by quite a bit. You might say, “well why would you do that?” and I could almost guarantee its medical bills.
An Example of an Exception
A young couple making $80,000 a year, they had their first baby, it spent seven months in the NICU. Everything they were making went right to the hospital. Somebody comes in, “I just found out I had stage four cancer,” everything’s going to the hospital. They’re making decent enough money but because we’re not run by the government I’m allowed to bend the rules and I do quite often with those cases.
Bradey: I think that is amazing because you know the medical bill side of things can be so expensive. I had kids go in the NICU and that adds up so fast and it’s so expensive. It’s a hole that’s hard to dig out of and if you don’t have any form of assistance to help get there it can feel impossible. Maybe part of that help is the Food Pantry for a little while, but I think there’s another piece or element here. The sense that you’ve got this support also is a huge piece that helps people realize they really fine. We can make this work.
Matt: Yea, you know these people that work through it and they become a better person because they dealt with it. They also realize where the help came from and then they turn around and give right back to it. It’s how we keep going, it’s a good cycle. We provide the mechanism to allow them free up to the monies that they can then get out of the hole they’re it.
Q: How can I volunteer?
Matt: We depend very much on volunteers. It is just two of us that work here, myself and I have a warehouse manager. So everybody else you see out there working is all volunteer. I’ve had volunteers that have been here longer than me. I got a lady that’s been coming for 25 years, she comes every Wednesday and she just walks around, she cleans up, she empties garbage’s, she fills shelves, she does it all.
Then, I’ve got volunteers that will just walk off the street and say, “hey, I’ve got an hour. Can you use me?” Then I have groups that will call and say, “hey, can I bring my church group can I bring my business can I bring my family down on an evening and volunteer?”.
We accept voluntary groups on Tuesday nights and Thursday nights. There’s always sorting to do, rearranging bags of this that or the other into smaller bags, stocking shelves, there are all kinds of different things we have them do. I have a lot of retired professionals who are volunteers and they come on a regular basis. I’ll get them going on something and three or four weeks later they’ll come in and say, “hey this is good, what you’re doing, but in my experience, through my career, we can do it better by doing this.” Great, let’s change it let’s make it something better and so we’re always improving and almost a lot of that comes from my volunteers. They’re giving us a lot of good ideas that they see what’s working, they see how it can be better. Volunteers, we love them.
Bradey: That’s awesome. So Tuesdays and Thursdays, groups can come in in the evening, as volunteering to do work.
Q: What foods can I donate?
Matt: Anything, if you see it at a grocery store, we’ll take it. Food’s our focus, that’s what we want the most of. But, if we just do a Boy Scout food drive, for example, and we get 80,000 pounds of food and then the next day, somebody calls in a says, “hey, I want to do a food drive.” I would, at that point, redirect them and say, “how about you do a hygiene drive for me instead?”
So shampoo, toilet paper, toothbrushes, anything hygiene; it all goes towards my goal. I want to reduce your monthly budget and if I can give you soap, shampoo and all that, I’m gonna save you a few dollars there that you can again, use to get yourself out of debt. Anything you see at the store, we’ll take it.
What is Not Commonly Donated?
Matt: A common question we get asked is, what is not commonly donated? Almost always, in sixteen years, almost always the answer is baking goods. People think, I’m gonna donate to the pantry, I’ll get a can of corn and a bottle of peanut butter. I can almost guarantee you when somebody asks that question, I’m gonna tell them baking goods. Flour, sugar, baking soda, brown sugar, chocolate chips, marshmallows, cooking oil; people want to bake.
They have their daughter’s birthday coming up or their anniversary or something. They want to make a cake, they want to cook cookies and so they’ll always says, “do you have some of this? can I take it?” If anybody calls me and says, “hey I’ve got $300. I’ll go to the store what can I get for you?” Chocolate chips, marshmallows, get me some sugar brown, sugar, cooking oil; It’s not thought of. people don’t think about it.
Bradey: In the gardening season do you have too many zucchinis that make their way here?
Matt: We get a ton of zucchini. I tell everybody you don’t need a doorbell-ditch it, bring it here. Yes, we get a lot of it, but it all goes. Even the ginormous ones that people let grow too big, they take them. I have better quality produce here for about three to four weeks than any grocery stores in the valley. It still has the dirt on it, but they don’t care.
I’ve even had people pull off the streets say, “hey can I buy this?” No, you can’t buy it.
Grow a Row for the Pantry
Bradey: The reason why gardening came to my mind to ask is, gardening is pretty big in Cache Valley. a lot of people like to do boxes at least or some form of gardening. whether it’s a tomato on the patio or a giant garden that just helps instill work for kids.
Matt: We’ve advertised before and said, “hey, grow a row for the food pantry”. Plant a little bit extra, bring it down to the pantry. My wife grows a garden, I can’t grow anything, I’ve tried. My dad would be very depressed to hear that I can’t grow a tomato because he could grow the best tomatoes in the world, but I can’t. I don’t have that. So my wife grows the garden. We bring down beets and things like that from our garden and a lot of people do it.
Apples, this year was an awesome apple year, we got so many apples this year, but you know they all went. They’re all gone, everybody takes some.
Ryan: That’s good to know too because there’s not a lot of food drives, at least that I’ve been a part of, that will accept fresh produce. That’s awesome that you can bring it here.
Matt: Another thing you can bring in here, as far as donations goes, we have a big walk-in freezer, we have a big walk-in cooler and so we can take items that require refrigeration. Somebody will call and say, “I killed a cow, last year and I’m cleaning out my freezer for this year’s cow. Can you take it?” Absolutely, so long as it’s been in the freezer the whole time, it’s cut and wrapped, we’ll take it.
All your grocery stores; Smith’s, Macy’s, Lee’s, Sam’s Club, Walmart all of them here in town, they will freeze items that are close to expiration date. Then we go pick them up and bring them down here. For a long time meats were hard first to get for obvious reasons, but once corporate finally gave permission, that was a great day. We put meats out on the line and people would say, “can I really take that roast!?” Yep! Put it in your cart. so it’s awesome.
Don’t donate meat on a food drive, that happened one year. We knew there was something in the building because it was getting riper and riper every day. We’ve got to find this and it was somebody put a chuck roast in a donation and we finally found it, it was bad.
If somebody’s got a donation that needs refrigeration, best to just bring it down so that we can put it right in and not risk losing it.
Q: When can I donate?
Matt: Our hours of operation are from 8:00 AM till 3:30 PM Monday – Thursday. Friday we’re here till noon. If you come after hours and you have a donation, we have a box right behind us on the west side of the building, you can put it in there. We’ve got a volunteer that lives just around the corner. She comes by and checks that and if there’s anything in that she brings it in. She comes probably by, minimal, once a night. Often she’s here a couple times check on that and will bring it in. If you put it out there, it’s not gonna stay out there very long.
If somebody wants to make an easy cash donation, we implemented a text to donate number last year. They can text “foodpantry”, has to be all one word, “foodpantry”, if you separate it it doesn’t work, we learned that the hard way. If they text “foodpantry” to 41444, that takes you to a landing page they can use a credit card and make a donation that way.
Q: What’s out back?
Matt: The buildings out back used to be the Edwards furniture buildings. Edwards furniture used to keep all their inventory in there, but when they built the new building out here, they didn’t need this space anymore so they sold it to us. The timing was perfect because we were in the process of raising the money to tear down the building we were in. We were thinking, where are we gonna operate and then they came along said, “would you like to buy our buildings?” “Yes we would!” So we operated out of those buildings, it was a tight squeeze for six months but we did it.
Now that we’re out of those buildings we use those buildings for overflow items, non-food items, we keep all of our lawnmowers and things like. Sometimes we’ll get items that are like fridges, freezers, mattresses that are donated, we put them out there until we find a family that can use them. We use them quite a bit. In five or ten years from now, I would love to tear them down and build something a little more adequate, something that we can maybe utilize a little bit more efficiently in than what it is. Those buildings are old, they’re really old.
Bradey: So they do serve a good function so that’s awesome. When we were parking, I was like, “Oh,there’s even more back here.”
Q: What programs does the Food Pantry provide?
Matt: The backpack program started about, I want to say five years ago. There was a lady by name of Peggy Reese and she started the backpack program. She called it “still cool after school”. The purpose behind the program is, they were noticing there were children going home, a lot of them were single-parent families or both parents were working on the weekends and they’re leaving these little kids at home by themselves. To help them have something to eat that didn’t require mixing ingredients, boiling water or whatever cooking on the stove to any degree, the backpack provides items that are small they’re easy to open they’re zero to little preparation.
We put a little box of milk in there from Gossners and a little pre-made bowl of cereal and all you do is peel the plastic off pour the milk in they got a little cereal. Granola bars, a juice box or something like that. That’s to help them to have something to get them through the weekend. It helps the child, it gives mom or dad or both peace of mind that juniors not at home trying to burn the house down by cooking something. The program started and in its first year, Peggy came to us and said, “hey, this is getting a little bit big can the food pantry run it?” so we put it in underneath our umbrella.
How it Works
Peggy and her team of volunteers still manage it. What we do on our end is; we get all the food, we raise the money we need, we purchase the items that go in the backpacks, we assemble them in a Ziploc bag and then we organize them in the schools that we serve. I think we’re helping about twelve or thirteen or so elementary schools, so we’ll assemble those on Tuesdays and get them all ready.
Then on Wednesdays the different schools will come in they know right where to go, where their slot for Hill-crest elementary, Wilson Elementary, Lincoln Elementary they go right to their slot, they pull their bin out and off they go. Then, they take the backpack to the schools. From there volunteers at the schools will either just give them the bag or they’ll slip it in their existing backpack and off they go.
Bradey: I saw and thought that’s really cool. My oldest, when he was younger, he microwaved a pizza on a plate. Mom and dad went running and came back and the house stunk. He said he put it in for 30 seconds. I asked, then show me what 30 seconds is on the microwave. He had put 30 minutes. So the plate was mostly melted.
Matt: We had a similar experience of that so we can relate.
The High School Pantry Project
Bradey: That makes sense anymore, it’s more common that both parents are working.
Matt: We rely on the teachers and the counselors at the schools to identify the kids that are in most need, we have to have them kind of do that selection process because it’s expensive, you know. If we had all the money in the world we can do more, but we need to select the ones that need it the most and get that out too them. This year, as of this week, actually, we rolled out our high school pantry project. We’re hearing from the counselors and teachers they’re saying, “hey, just because they got out of elementary school doesn’t mean they don’t need anything.”
We don’t prepare a backpack for them because they’re old enough they can handle things, but we put a small pantry in each of the Junior High’s, so there are three Junior Highs and then there’s five high schools, and we put a shelf and a fridge and a freezer in each of these schools. We have a set amount of items that we stock in the schools and the idea behind those is you know the teachers are gonna see hey so-and-so over here’s not looking too good.
“are you doing okay?” “I’m hungry.” “well here’s a Ziploc bag it has a couple granola bars and juice box in there and hey, on your way home tonight if you stop by the pantry here and grab something out of the fridge or freezer to take home.” The idea here with that program is to help the student to get through the day one reason or another. We’re focusing on one other thing with that, and that’s the family.
Why not Small Pantries in the Schools?
We don’t want to have a family food pantry at the schools because the schools have said there’s enough weird stuff going on at the schools, we don’t want people coming in that we don’t know. So what we’ve done is with each of these students that use the pantry we say here’s a voucher take that down to the food pantry here and go and see what the pantries about. It’s basically a free pass, no questions asked to come and get some food.
What that does is it reduces the stigma that people have about a food pantry, the first time you hear about a food pantry, you think “it’s going to be mac and cheese and a loaf of bread, I’m not gonna waste my time.” But a voucher gets that family down here they walk in and they’re like “hey there’s a lot more here than I would have guessed”. After that, if they want to then they would fill out an application and then they will start to come.
If somebody comes down here, we get from Smiths, for example, I mentioned they freeze their meats that are close to expiration day. we’ve put out rib eye steaks, we’ve put out ribs, roasts, chuck roast, we put out fish. We put out everything that you’d see at the Sam’s Club or at Smiths or the whichever store you pick. They all do it and whatever you see down there we get it sometimes and people can be like, “Wow! You’ve got New York strip steaks right there?”. We’re not loaded with it but occasionally it comes through.
I’ve got one guy that I know, he’s just a big guy and he loves meat. He’s a barbecuer and he was retired law enforcement, but his health really tanked. He barely walked with a cane and everything.
Once in a while from Sam’s Club, we’d get what they call cowboy rib eye steak, I’ve never heard of them before, but it’s just a huge thick rib eye steak, it’s got the bone in it still. I never knew what they were until they came in here. I thought, Oh. So I pulled those aside. He came in and I said, “hey I got something for you.” You’d of thought he was a kid at Christmas time. He got emotional and crying a little bit and said, “thank you so much.” He came back a couple weeks later and he’s like, “Man that was awesome. I was able to do this, it was my birthday this week.” That was just luck, but you know people don’t get to see the fruits of their labors.
I feel a little guilty taking all that because I’m the one that gets to see all of the “thank you so much” and “we appreciate this” and this, that and the other, but some people come in and had me a check or some cash and that’s how we run. (It was awesome because, at this very spot in the interview, which you can hear in the record, someone had just dropped by and left a $100 bill.)
Q: What is needed during the Holidays?
Matt: Well, this time of year, if somebody calls and says, “What do you need the most?” Besides the baking goods, I try to make sure that I can provide a traditional Thanksgiving dinner for everybody that comes. I want to give them a turkey, the stuffing, the olives, the cranberry sauce. I want to make sure they have it all. A lot of my clients and I may have mentioned this, but a lot of my clients, their reality is not very good. If I can give them that stuff to take home, it’s an escape from reality for Thanksgiving Day and maybe the day after. They’ve got everything, they don’t need to worry about not having it for their families. They can just relax and have a nice dinner for their family and put off reality for a couple of days. Then we do it again for Christmas.
Matt: For Christmas I’ll try to get some hams, ham is usually what we associate with Christmas dinner. I’ll still have turkeys and hams I’ll put that out there. For Christmas we also do some gifts. People donate all kinds of stuff here they drop off toys, they drop off you name it and if they’re in good condition we’ll hang on to them throughout the year. Then come Christmas time we have one of my volunteers, she comes in and she gets it all ready and then as the families come into pick up their food I’ll say, “hey, when you’re done run around in the back of the building.”
I’ll send their name back there. I’ll say something like this is the so-and-so family. They have five kids ages this and this and their genders are this. By the time they get done shopping, they run back there she’ll have a bag ready. A black sack so the kids can’t see what’s in it. They say, “here you go.” It’s just something extra fun that we do.
I don’t advertise [toy donations] because I don’t want to get into the toy business. Sometimes people just drop them off.
Coats and Shoes
Matt: We used to do clothing, but it got to be too much for us for space and everything out here. But I will take coats and I will take shoes. Sometimes I see people come in without a coat. One winter I had a lady pull in here on her jazzy scooter and she had no shoes.
“where are your shoes?” I said
“I’m saving up my money so I can go get a pair”
“you don’t have any shoes?”
“no,” she replied.
So I came in here, you know that hundred-dollar bill that that guy just gave me? (this is referencing the above interaction at the end of the program section). I came in here and there was a $50 bill, I said “here you go. Go get you some shoes.”
She went down here to Big Five Sports and she came back with two pairs of shoes. She was so happy to show me she said, “look at this they had a sale going on!” So I have a lot of fun down here. Maybe you start to see why I’m still here after 16 years.
Using the Food Pantry for its Purpose
Matt: You know people you get some of these negative aspects of things. People will say, “why would I donate the pantry? I see Cadillacs in their parking lot sometimes.” Well, it’s true sometimes. Most of the time it’s because they got a ride from somebody because they don’t have a car. Sometimes it’s because that’s the car they had when they lost everything and they’re still driving it. And it’s is a legitimate concern sometimes. There is abuse in every social program you have and we’re no excuse.
Every Once in a while, I find somebody that’s abusing the program. We’re proactive against that. If we see it we remind them that that’s not what we do. If they continue to do that, they are no longer not welcome to come. Because that’s not why people give to us. It happens. It’s a small percentage of what goes on but sadly that seems what the public focuses on. This small percent of the negative and because I saw that one small thing I’m not gonna donate. Because I saw that one thing happen. We don’t like to see it. If it happens, as I said, we take care of it as soon as we know about it.
95% of people are awesome and they use it for what it’s for. They get out they get back on their feet and they’re very grateful for it.
Matt: To be honest with you, I didn’t know there was a food pantry in Cache Valley until I saw an ad in the paper 16 years ago. I thought, well I’ll get some experience there. Let’s go apply and I got involved with it and thought, I’m staying.
Any kind of exposure we can get for the pantry is good exposure. We get tour groups that come through here. I’ll give them tours and a lot of what we hear is “I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that. I can do this?”
Wrapping it up
This was a very fun and educational interview. Thank you to Matt Witaker and the Cache Community Food Pantry for this great opportunity.
How can I donate?
Contact Matt (435-753-7140). Also, check out their “Get Involved” page on their website here
- Groups can volunteer Tuesday and Thursday evenings
- Coordinate with Matt for individual or couples (great date night activity)
- Contact Matt if you are doing a drive or group event to see what the Food Pantry is currently in need of
- Food items can be dropped of during business hours
- 8 AM – 3:30 PM Monday – Thursday
- 8 AM – 12 PM Friday
- Items that do not require refrigeration or to be frozen can also be dropped of in their donation box on the west side of the building.
- Cash or Checks can be dropped of during business hours
- Use Smile.amazon.com and choose the Cache Community Food Pantry
- Text “Foodpantry” to 41444
- More options on their site here
- Don’t forget, donations are fully tax deductible.
You can also check out some of their videos on YouTube to find out more.
For more information about the Cache Valley Podcast be sure to check out our previous episodes.
Thanks for hangout out with us, we’ll see you next time!