A line of trucks, cars, and vans snakes its way around Exhibit Hall up to the Community Building at Johnson County Fairgrounds in Buffalo, Wyoming, on a blustery Tuesday morning. Outside the Community Building, stacks of boxes and bags filled with food grow higher and wider as volunteers methodically file in and out of the entryway carrying load after load of potatoes, raspberries, frozen fish, frozen green beans, and several other food items.
Among the Food Bank of Wyoming mobile pantry volunteers are a handful of FFA (Future Farmers of America) high school students, earning credit toward lettering in their activity with each hour they donate to helping feed their neighbors experiencing food insecurity.
Bev, a middle school and high school teacher and the Buffalo FFA coordinator, is there, too, joking with the teenage kids and helping pack food. “I take whatever extra dry food is left afterwards back to the school for the kids,” she said. “Having snacks on hand is helpful, especially because some of the students don’t have much ‘extra’ at home.”
Buffalo is home to some 4,500 people and located about two hours north of Casper. While food insecurity has always been present in the town, since COVID-19 hit in March 2020 the need for food has noticeably increased.
“I always thought, ‘Oh, I’ll never have to worry about getting food in the food line or anything.’ But boy, when that virus hit, it just knocked everything out,” said Sherree, one of the more than 50 people already waiting in line an hour before the mobile pantry officially started, her friend Janice in the passenger seat. “And now, we don’t know day to day what’s going to be available in the stores.”
Sherree is on disability and lives with her elderly mother. Janice is her neighbor, and the two are all smiles and chit-chat as they recall the many meals they’ve created using food from the boxes.
“We don’t believe in wasting any of the food,” said Sherree as Janice nodded. “Nothing goes to waste. I mean, what Janice can’t think of to make, I can, and vice versa. I love cooking and can look at a recipe and go, oh, well I can replace this with that and add that to that.”
“There’s nothing that we can’t use,” added Janice. “We can always find somebody who needs it if we can’t use it. But we usually use all of it.”
The friends have crafted dozens of recipes together over the last two years, including: roasted-garlic chicken salad; sauteed bok choy with onion and bacon (“My mom had never tried bok choy before and loved it,” said Sherree. “I made a big bowl and got maybe two servings from it; she ate the rest.”); chicken enchiladas; pickled green beans with chile peppers and garlic; and chicken dumplings.
Often, the neighbors make enough food to feed family members, coworkers, and friends along with their own immediate families. “It’s like Christmas every month,” said Janice. “We get excited to see what’s in the box.” Added Sherree: “We get giddy! ‘We’re in the money!’” The two laughed. “But really, we’re very, very grateful for this food,” continued Sherree. “It gets pretty tight with our budget; sometimes we have to choose between prescriptions and food. So this was and still is a life-saving gift for us.”
Amy, the mobile pantry’s volunteer coordinator, said that on average 150 people come each month to get food. Many people pick up for neighbors, friends, or family members who can’t take off from work midday on a Tuesday or don’t have the transportation to get there. “We try to make the proxy system as easy as possible while also making sure we have enough food for everyone in line,” she explained. “Sometimes there are so many cars we have to limit how many proxies they can pick up for that month.”
Among the many people in line are several people who currently use the monthly food boxes to supplement their limited incomes.
“I’m on Social Security right now, so I am on a budget. Everybody’s on a budget,” said David, who moved to Buffalo in 2016 after he lost his house in Laramie. His niece lives in Buffalo and helped him and his girlfriend find a house. “This definitely helps; I think everybody in line right now would tell you they appreciate it. The potatoes and the fruit are really good because they aren’t easy to come by. We’re grateful for anything that we can use.”
When the mobile pantry officially begins at 12 p.m., a line of more than 60 cars is weaving through the fairgrounds. The whipping wind and dropping temperatures don’t deter the cheerful volunteers as they place boxes and bags of food into trunk after trunk, smiles on their wind-bitten cheeks. People in line return the smiles and depart, food in trunk, with a wave. They are all part of the same community and there to support one another in whatever ways they can, be it with time and energy volunteered or smiles and “thank yous” exchanged.
If you are interested in giving back to your own community, please consider volunteering with us at our distribution center in Casper or at a mobile pantry in your area. To learn more, visit wyomingfoodbank.org/get-involved/volunteer. We couldn’t do any of this without you. Thank you.