By Debra Minor Wilson
Times West Virginian
On a cold winter day, stepping into the kitchen at the Soup Opera gives you a warm, comforting feeling.
A bowl of steaming hot turkey noodle soup is the perfect match for a peanut butter sandwich, salad and dessert.
Fortunately, the larder is full at the Soup Opera ... for now.
“The shelves look full, but it will go fast,” said director Shelia Tennant. “By February, they’ll be looking pretty empty.”
The Soup Opera is one of 11 agencies participating in the Times West Virginian’s fifth annual Gift of Love food drive.
From now untill Thursday, Feb. 13, Marion Countians are urged to bring any nonperishable food item to the Times office at 300 Quincy St. Food will be distrubuted to participating agencies on Feb. 14.
This Marion County United Way agency serves about 119 free lunches every day to anyone who comes to the kitchen.
On the third Friday of each month, it also gives out bags of emergency food supplies to needy families.
“We like to give at least a bag full of things families can make a meal out of, enough to last at least three or four days. If we get a big box of cereal, we can divide it between two families.
“Most of the time the bags are gone by the end of the day,” she said. “But this last time, we had to pack 30 extra bags. That meant 30 extra families in December.”
This can make the cupboard pretty bare pretty quickly.
Tennant said the Gift of Love donations “help tremendously.”
“We need packaged meals,” she said. “Hamburger Helper. Spaghetti and sauce. Mac and cheese. Peanut butter and jelly. Cereal. Any kind of canned food ... soups, vegetables, meats. And we always need dried beans and rice.
“Anything you can think of to make a meal out of. “Things like that always run out first because we give those out the most.”
Most food is donated but when they need to, they purchase extra in bulk.
“When it starts getting low, especially this past year, we’ve had to buy food to give out. It used to be we would never do that, but we didn’t have a choice.”
The reason is the soup kitchen is feeding about more people each year than the last, she said.
In 2011, the Soup Opera dished out more than 36,000 daily lunches, and more than 38,000 in 2012.
“And I know we’ll be well over 40,000 for 2013,” she said. “You can see, it’s going up by at least 2,000 or more a year.
“Every day, we have three, four new people, sometimes more. And it seems like there are more families.”
Smaller cans are given out in the emergency food bags. Larger-sized cans are used at the kitchen.
Sobrania Inc./Soup Opera has been serving daily hot meals since Feb. 4, 1983, and providing monthly emergency food orders for the past 10 years.
“Everything is totally free of charge,” Tennant said. It also sets out a pastry-and-fruit breakfast every morning, in addition offering to hygiene products, clothing, bedding and household supplies, and shower and laundry facilities.
“The Gift of Love helps us tremendously. By February, our shelves will have gone down pretty bad. We see a tremendous difference once we’ve given out food in January.
“The Gift used to take us through three or four months, but now it’s down to two because we’re serving so many more people. There are more people needing monthly groceries or a daily meal.”
The Soup Opera receives anywhere from $10,000 to $14,000 a year from the United Way of Marion County.
“We used to get money from FEMA, but we haven’t for at least two years,” she said. “And when we did, it was normally about $2,000 a year. The agency also receives from the Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway and from the USDA.
“Otherwise, we depend on the community, individuals, churches and groups to get us through.”
This day’s soup-and-sandwich meal cost about $1.50 per person to make, she said. That sounds pretty economical.
“But it adds up when you feed 100-plus every day of the year,” she said.
“People are very good to donate through the holidays. There’s always an overabundance, and that’s good. We thank God because that gets us through to the next food drive.
“We’re thankful. I don’t know what we’d do without the community. It’s amazing how people give and help. Not just the Soup Opera, but places like HOPE and the Union Mission.
“There is a lot of need in Marion County,” she said. “I’m trying to find out how many homeless we have. I’m concerned. I think we have more than I used to think. A lot of them come here, but some don’t.”
Any nonperishable food is gladly welcomed, she said.
“Anything helps. One can, two cans. Whatever you can afford. Any little bit we can put together with other foods.”
“We are blessed. We are so thankful and appreciate the community pulling together and helping us,” Tennant said.
“Without folks giving and caring so much, we wouldn’t be here. God bless everyone.”
Even if it’s just one can of beans or one box of cereal or stuffing, give.
“A little bit can make a big difference,” she said.
“Some people are one to two paychecks away from being homeless. This could be you.”
To help the Soup Opera and all the other food pantries the Times West Virginian is collecting food for, here’s what you can do:
• Individuals are encouraged to bring boxes or bags of canned goods or nonperishable food items to our business office at 300 Quincy St. We will be collecting these items Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Thursday, Feb. 13.
• Businesses, schools or offices can set up satellite donation locations to collect items through Thursday, Feb. 13. We’ll even come and pick up all items collected.
• Community-service organizations, schools, school programs, churches or civic groups can take this on as a project. Again, anything you collect, we’ll pick up to be distributed with the other donations.
For more information on the Gift of Love, call the Times West Virginian’s newsroom at 304-367-2540.
Email Debra Minor Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.