It’s a rainy Thursday and the YMCA of Natrona County is bustling. Adults bob up and down in the shallow end of the swimming pool following their water aerobics instructor’s directions. Toddlers play with their daycare classmates. People on lunch breaks select their favorite machines to exercise on. And in the multi-purpose room adjacent to the pool, tables filled with food of all kinds — salad mixes, jalapenos, crackers, bread, mangoes, strawberries, coffee creamer, granola bars — line the walls, ready for people to come and get what they need for the weeks ahead.
On average every week, the YMCA of Natrona County — a Hunger Relief Partner of Food Bank of Wyoming — provides food to 200–300 people, all sourced from the Food Bank. What began several years ago as a single table with food and snacks for kids after school has grown into a full-blown community distribution site, serving as many individuals and families facing food insecurity as possible.
“Waves of people come when exercise classes get out or parents come to pick up their kids. Middle schoolers will come after school or during the summer to get snacks. It’s a diverse clientele,” explained Amanda Konings, who helps run the food pantry at the YMCA as well as the one at her church. “We used to just have two tables in the lobby as well as order snacks for the preschool and elementary school kids. It kept growing from there.”
Among the 20 or so people waiting for the pantry to open at 12:00 p.m. is Cari and her two young kids. She’s a swimming instructor at the YMCA and started regularly picking up food from this site earlier this year.
“We’re on a tight budget, mostly relying on my husband’s income,” she shared. “The food we get here covers the weeks when we’re low on food. We especially love the fresh fruits and vegetables. They’re so expensive in the store and my kids love to eat fruit and veggies. It really helps with the budget and snack time.”
Across from Cari sits Priscilla, who also comes to get food weekly. “Prices [for food] keep going up and up and quality keeps going down,” she explained. “I’m a single parent taking care of an adult son with autism and there are certain things that he has to have. It’s much more affordable for us to get food here so we can afford other necessities. I tell everyone about Food Bank of Wyoming’s pantries around town and encourage them to go.”
At noon, a volunteer starts calling names from the sign-in sheet and everyone gets ready to go shopping. For individuals who didn’t bring something to carry the food, Amanda hands out cardboard boxes left over from unpacking the food items. The room buzzes with conversations, laughter, kids zig-zagging between adults’ legs, and the sound of bags and boxes being filled up with food.
One mom, Delina, walks around the room with her 5-year-old, Ellie, an especially bubbly child who shows off her smile and skirt with a twirl. Delina also works at the YMCA, as a yoga instructor, and, like Cari, visits the pantry most weeks.
“It helps supplement my income and our diets,” she said. “It’s also fun to try new stuff — we get things here that we normally wouldn’t look for or think to buy. Ellie loves fruits and veggies, and being able to get those here helps a lot. Neither of us can eat dairy, either, and there are usually good options for us here. Plus, everyone is so friendly!”
After 45 minutes, the first wave of clients has receded and most people have left to take their food home. While walking to her van, Cari turns around to say goodbye. “Now we have enough for dinner tonight,” she beams. “Thank you!”