This month, letter carriers around the country held their annual “Stamp Out Hunger” food drive, an event that grew from carriers noticing the need in the neighborhoods they walk every day.
On the second Saturday in May, letter carriers around the country were picking up more than just mail. They were collecting cans of soup, bags of dried beans, boxes of cereal, and more.
“Unfortunately, the need for food is universal," said Pam Donato, the community and membership outreach coordinator for the National Association of Letter Carriers. “So, the food drive was started organically from the grassroots level when letter carriers all around the country independently began to notice the need on their own routes, as they walked through the neighborhoods, where families did not have enough to eat.”
A handful of carriers began what Donato calls “rogue food drives” in their communities, where they would collect donations from doorsteps to hand out to local food pantries.
In 1991, during the biennial national convention for the union, the carriers decided to join forces and start a more structured campaign. That year, 10 cities participated in the first one-day drive held in the fall.
“They learned after that food drive that the mechanics were good. They were able to achieve great success and collected several million pounds of food," she said. "But, they also learned that the food pantries and the food banks were in the fall of the year already receiving many donations from well-intended people that wanted to make sure during the holidays that people in their community had enough.”
Diana Jeska, director of the Homer Community Food Pantry, said locally, donations pour in during the holiday months and begin to wane during spring and summer.
That’s bad news for pantries, which often see an increase in need in the summer months. It’s the time when children, especially, no longer have access to free breakfast and lunch programs at school.
Pantries called on the letter carriers to move their drive from the fall to the spring to boost donations.
“So, we moved it in 1993. [It was the] first ever national food drive where we had every state participate and we have not looked back," Donato said.
Over the last 24 years, the carriers have collected about 1.4 billion pounds of food.
In Homer, donations came in both with the carriers and directly to the post office, where they were dropped off in a mail bin in the front lobby.
Melissa Medeiros is the Homer postmaster. She said the post office is a logical place for people to come together for a drive.
“I’ve lived in several small communities and have been a postmaster in a couple of different small communities and it definitely is the focal point of that community because everyone needs the mail. Everybody’s coming in and out of that building," said Medeiros.
She said one of the highlights of the drive wasthat it kept the donations local, where it’s needed most.
“You know, there’s a lot of need in communities. I think the greatest thing about this is that the food is for our local food pantry here. At this time of the year, our letter carriers are delivering more than just mail. They’re delivering hope, which I think is just amazing.”
At the Homer food pantry, volunteers worked hard to separate the donations that came in during the drive by type.
“Yeah, they were really kind. They brought up all these boxes and it ends up here. The people here sort it and eventually it will go out to people who need it in the main room. It was lovely, the whole floor was covered with boxes and bags and we’re still going through it," said Nadya, one of the volunteers.
It will all go to fill the need on the peninsula, which has been steadily on the rise over the last few years.
According to Jeska, there was an 18 percent increase in the number of households needing help from 2014 to 2015. Last year, the pantry served more than 21,000 adults and children from Ninilchik to Nanwalek – averaging about 1,700 people per month.
Every month, they distributed about 45 boxes to local seniors and shipped containers across the bay to about 20 families in need.
While they purchase about $2,500 dollars of food a month, about 75 percent of what is distributed comes from donations.
“People think that when they drive through suburbs or affluent neighborhoods or people that look on the outside of the home that they have everything under control that everything is. But, I promise you, carriers know the story is different," said Donato.
Donato worked as a carrier for many years and says she took the responsibility seriously.
“I’m prior military. I’m a veteran, so I believed that a uniform and having the trust of somebody to walk into their yard and visit their home every day was a privilege. It made me realize how important that link was," she said.
She saw children grow up, go off to school, get married. She saw older residents retire. She watched her neighborhoods grow and change. But, she also dropped off foreclosure notices, bills, sympathy cards during illness or after a death.
“That’s what this whole food drive was based on – this inescapable reality that we are all human beings at our very core. We all have needs and if we don’t have needs and we are blessed and have enough, most of us, when we’re told of a need someone else has, don’t mind at all sharing that thing that we have that somebody else needs more of," said Donato.
While the “Stamp out Hunger” food drive is over for this year, the Homer Community Food Pantry accepts donations year round.
The pantry is located in Homer United Methodist Church at 770 East End Road. More information is available at 235-1968.