The battle against hunger can begin with one tiny mustard seed of an idea.
It happened that way for Marietta's Community Food Pantry.
"We absolutely didn't imagine back then that this would grow like it has grown," said Norma Schultheis, of Marietta. "It was simply a way for each of us to grow in the Lord and to reach out to other people."
MITCH CASEY The Marietta Times
Volunteers Penny Hall, left, Joyce Arnold and Colin Brockett stock shelves earlier this week at Marietta’s Community Food Pantry at the First Congregational Church of Front Street.
The Community Food Pantry has served residents for 30 years, thanks to a small group of young mothers at First Congregational Church, 318 Front St. The church has housed the pantry's operations ever since, although the pantry stands on its own and is not directly part of the church.
"There were maybe six or seven working on the Bible study program that encouraged us to reach outside the church and get connected with people in need," Schultheis said. "We decided we would start a food pantry."
The women contributed non-perishable food from their own cupboards, asked fellow church members for small donations and began to accumulate a tiny pantry.
If you go
What: Community Food Pantry Roast and Toast.
When: 6 p.m. Saturday,
Where: Betsey Mills Club.
Who: Open to the community.
Tickets: $25; $40 per couple.
To get tickets: Teri Ann's, Putnam Chocolates, Marietta Wine Cellars, Marietta-Washington County Convention & Visitors Bureau or call 373-5741.
"It was actually not a pantry at all, but just a closet where we kept food for people in emergency situations, like floods, fire, being out of work, that sort of thing," Schultheis said.
Ultimately, she joined another church, not thinking much about how the food pantry was doing.
"I think we all are more aware of hunger today than we were back then," Schultheis said. "We were young and didn't think about those things as much."
The Bible study group was led by Barbara Jackson, before she became a pastor.
"I was a young Christian," said Jackson, now pastor of Putnam Congregational Church in Devola. "We were using a book and study guide called 'Edge of Adventure.' When a chapter ended, you were challenged to go out and apply what you had learned."
Feeding the hungry in the community seemed a worthy cause for the young moms.
"It was just a mustard seed of an idea," Jackson said. "It was a God thing."
In its early days, the pantry was "very small, very humble," Jackson said of the early days of the pantry. "Other people were very good at networking and carried it forward."
Marietta resident Anita Wall was organist and choir director at First Congregational Church when she was part of the Bible study class that first proposed the idea of a food pantry 30 years ago. The idea of a food pantry serving thousands in the community never crossed her mind.
"I never dreamed," she said. "Back then most of us never even thought about hunger. Certainly, it didn't affect us.
"My father owned a restaurant for goodness sakes," Wall said.
The small group of moms sent letters to 75 areas churches telling them about the pantry, hoping they would make their members aware, and perhaps get some support.
From those beginnings, the pantry has grown, with about 40 regular volunteers today. More than 7,500 individuals each year are served by the local pantry, according to Steve Porter, chairman of the Community Food Pantry task force committee.
A family is allowed six visits to the pantry in a calendar year. That number can change depending on how the pantry is doing, Porter said. There are years when the number of visits has been lower.
"We were fortunate this year with a generous contribution from Dominion Gas ($20,000)," he said. "Without that, we might have been in a far worse position right now. We are not getting as much from the food bank, and it's costing us more to fill the boxes."
For example, cereal that once cost 12 cents a pound, now costs the pantry $2 a box. That is still less than retail, but is a "challenge" Porter said.
"Right now there is concern over increased usage," Porter said. "Nationwide, use of food pantries is up 30 percent because of the economy."
Outlying food pantries in rural Washington County, such as L.A.M.B. (Lowell Food Pantry) are seeing more increases in demand for food than in Marietta, he said.
"We are up 15 percent in 2008," said Judy Gilham, coordinator of the food pantry and thrift shop at 309 Walnut St. in Lowell. "We're not doing too bad right now, but we're very busy."
The pantry served 608 people in 2008.
"We get a lot from the Witten Farm and through Harvest of Hope," she said. "That's helped us out quite a bit."
Scott Britton, director of Marietta's food pantry for three years, is encouraged by local contributions and the Dominion grant. There is some hope of a partial matching grant from the Marietta Community Foundation through the Susan Marsch estate, but that is still in planning stages, he said.
"We're doing pretty well," Britton said. "We always have the same old challenges, especially during our 'down time,' which is any time that is not Thanksgiving or Christmas."
Second Harvest has improved in contributions a bit, he said and in March the pantry received 5,000 pounds of food. The month before had been 4,000 pounds.
The pantry and others in the area have also received help from Harvest of Hope, a food rescue organization founded by longtime Community Food Pantry volunteer Karen Kumpf. More than 40,000 pounds of food, which might otherwise have gone to waste, were distributed in 2008 to Washington County food pantries and other programs through Harvest of Hope.
"Harvest of Hope has been wonderful. Without their help all our pantries would be far worse off," Britton said.
Marietta Mayor Michael Mullen, who will be the target of a roast on Saturday, May 2, as part of a fundraising dinner for the Marietta pantry, praised the organization's contribution to the community, especially in the current economic climate.
"There is no more important cause than making sure people are fed," Mullen said. "I've seen people who live here who have had a normal income and have had resources now finding themselves in very tenuous positions in this tough economy. At the food pantry, it's amazing to see the generosity of people in this community."