Food pantry traffic causing concerns

Vicky Newman-News-Herald

Hungry food recipients call it a blessing from God. Jeff Schrimsher, New Life Family Worship Center pastor, refers to it as "controlled chaos." Volunteers deem it "a special calling."

Loudon Police Chief James "Bear" Webb believes it's "a cocktail for disaster."

At New Life Family Worship Center on Highway 72 in Loudon, Second Harvest Food Pantry food distributions take place at 3:30 p.m. each Tuesday. For years, cars have lined up along the highway beginning at 8 a.m.

According to organizers, some people sit in vehicles all day waiting to ensure they would receive food. Desperate to be served first, some park their vehicles on the highway and leave only to walk to the restrooms at the park nearby. Some go other places and return when it is time for food to be distributed.

Beginning April 2, food recipients will be required to have appointments scheduled through Loudon Police Department for picking up food. The traffic congestion has caused wrecks through the years.

"We have had dozens of complaints about the cars parking on the shoulders," Webb said. "It's especially hard on cars coming from Holt Drive into Highway 72. They can't see. It has gotten to the point that they start lining up at 7 in the morning, and they walk all over the place."

Food recipients were allowed initially to park in the church parking lot.

"We started out seven years ago with 30-40 families a week. Now it's 160-170 a week," Schrimsher said. "We do it with the good Lord's help, but it is about to overtake us. We have 20 volunteers who are very faithful. They work all day Monday and Tuesday, sometimes 10-12 hours."

The pantry does not restrict who receives food, and not all would be classified as low income, Charlotte Badgley, a board member for the 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, said.

"Our middle income people are having to come here now," Badgley said. "They're using their money to pay the insurance and the light bill, and they have to eat out of the pantry. The elderly people are really hurt by the high prices. We've had them to cry coming in here because of the increase in food prices."

The numbers of needy have increased continuously since the ministry began. Several years ago, the church stopped allowing recipients to park in the lot early and began closing the entrance. They did so because the property was mistreated and littered with cigarettes and trash.

When food recipients were prevented from coming on the site early, they began lining up on the highway.

"When we started out, we moved them 100 feet away from the intersection because there is a state law you can't line up at an intersection," Webb said. "But there are people who are concerned somebody is going to get hurt, and I share that concern. ... The church doesn't want to let them on the property too early because the number of citizens giving out the stuff is serving a number that stretches the limits of the food bank, but we have to get them off the highway."

Webb said pantry volunteers do not have enough manpower to organize scheduling for pickup, so the police department will give out vouchers — in essence, letters or numbers — that allow 30 families to arrive at the pantry distribution each 30 minutes.

LPD is located at 100 Cedar St., between the Courthouse Annex and the Highway 11 river bridge. Hours are 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and the building is closed noon-1 p.m. for lunch. Food recipients may pick up a voucher during regular hours Monday or Tuesday.

"We don't want to affect this ministry. It is an important service. Some people go every week to get food, and we don't want to stop that," Webb said. "But having them park on the shoulder can create an accident. We've had at least a couple through the years that can be directly attributed to the cars parked on the highway."

After LPD begins scheduling for pickups, the cars that park on the highway will be served last instead of getting in early.

Badgley said as long as God provides the food and needs of the ministry, volunteers will keep working to help those who come. "This is our calling," she said.

Anyone who would like to send a donation may mail it to New Life Family Worship Center Food Pantry, P.O. Box 292, Loudon TN 37774.

"A lot of people complain, but not a lot of people send donations," Schrimsher said.