Niles food distributions see increased participation

NILES — Volunteers in reflective, yellow vests directed drivers through the Big Lots Parking lot on Bell Road on Friday. The cars are lined up to cross the road and enter the parking lot of the Greater Niles Senior Center, 1109 Bell Road, where drivers navigated through cones to check in with a vested volunteer with a clipboard. Area residents in the vehicles awaited their turn to pick up their monthly commodities, including produce, dry goods and dairy.

The commodities were made available to those pre-registered for them through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Commodity Supplemental Food Program. This program is available to low-income seniors over the age of 60. Individuals picking up the boxes of food on a monthly basis are pre-registered to do so.

The quarterly commodities from The Emergency Food Assistance Program attracts a much larger crowd when it comes time to distribute the food. It also comes with more work for those at the Greater Niles Senior Center.

According to the center’s director, Jennifer Krueger, she has seen the community need increase since March. She said there was a freeze up until recently on registering for the monthly commodities, because the need has risen to the program’s maximum capacity.

“I had several [people in cars] asking me where the Feeding America mobile food trucks are at,” Krueger said. “They are trying to tap into those other resources.”

Krueger referenced a heightened urgency she has seen in the quarterly TEFAP distributions.

The last distribution for TEFAP, last Wednesday, saw many cars lined up on Bell Road. Volunteers and members of the staff at the Greater Niles Senior Center direct traffic on days the distributions are made with traffic cones, wands and by wearing reflective vests.

“Ninety percent of the people we are helping, they’re really grateful, awesome and say ‘thank you,’ and tell us we are doing a good job,” Krueger said. “Then, you have those that stick out like thorns.”

Krueger said on Wednesday, she was “cussed out” around 10 times by those showing up to pick up commodities. A Great Niles Senior Center board member was also reportedly threatened with being run over.

Still, Krueger said the center and its volunteers are passionate about what they do.

“These are volunteers out here all day long, working hard,” she said.

For the center’s monthly distribution of commodities, Krueger estimated the center distributes 275 boxes of food between the deliveries made to the Niles Housing Commission, to seniors that are homebound and to the individually that show up to drive-thru and pick up their boxes.

For the TEFAP’s quarterly distribution on Wednesday, it was estimated that more than 300 people were served.

Krueger said the center, which has operated on a limited basis since COVID-19 mandates were enacted mid-March in the state of Michigan, has continued to see its regular clients monthly. While volunteers, like retired Niles Township Fire fighters Dale Rieder and Fred Frost, help direct traffic into the center’s parking lot, assistant director Lisa Hunt continues taking calls inside to connect area seniors to assistance and resources. Without being able to offer fitness and the other congregant services the Greater Niles Senior Center traditionally has offered, Hunt keeps things rolling inside as people still need assistance with their Medicare, commodities, podiatry service, taxes, veterans services and equipment loans.

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