Community Cupboard Provides Valuable Service to Residents

Thursday and Friday are the busiest days of the week for the Menifee Valley Community Cupboard, a nonprofit organization that aims to alleviate hunger in the city.

Volunteers bustle around the stock room as clients line up in the waiting room in front. They’re all here for what program director Dawn Prather-Smith (left) refers to as, “the magical hour, one o’clock.”

When it’s time, the place seems to turn into a restaurant. Clients order at the counter and workers out front yell to the volunteers in the back, “I need one mini, no peanut butter!”

On these days, clients can pick up a mini-bag of perishable food items such as bread, eggs, dairy products, fresh produce, and an optional jar of peanut butter. Prather-Smith said on mini-bag day, they serve as many as 100 families.

Mini-bags are just one part of the many services provided by the Community Cupboard, which began in 1998 and is located in the Sun City Shopping Center. Every week, the organization puts together boxes of non-perishable food for struggling families living in the area and make deliveries for their clients who can’t drive.
Clients who come in to pick up their mini-bag or box can help themselves from the cases and shelves of food in the front office. Although most of the items are past their expiration date, they’re still safe to consume.

There’s also a bin of “mystery bags” out front, full of odd and unpopular non-perishable food items donated to the cupboard. These foods, such as canned beets, cream of mushroom soup and olives, aren’t placed in the boxes because children tend to be picky eaters.

When putting together mini-bags and boxes, volunteers at the Cupboard tries to stick to basic foods. They try to avoid putting junk food in their boxes. If any are donated, they usually leave it in the front of the office for clients to make their own decision whether to include it in their box.

The Cupboard’s main focus is on Menifee residents, but they don’t turn away those living on the streets. Whenever the homeless come in, they give them whatever food they can, and provide them with toiletries. At right, volunteer Bob Bulthuis packs a carton of eggs for a mini-bag.

“Our first goal is to help everyone that comes to us,” said Prather-Smith during a phone interview earlier. “We never want to be in a position where we have to turn people away empty-handed.”

The organization has also started working with local schools in providing children from low-income families with backpacks of non-perishable food every week, so they don’t go hungry over the weekend.

“I remember when I was young and at times there was no food in the house, so I know that it’s especially hard on the kids,” said Prather-Smith. 

The Community Cupboard is currently serving 640 families, an amount that will continue to increase until the end of June, according to Prather-Smith. After that, their fiscal year will reset in July.  

During the last fiscal year, the Cupboard helped over 1,000 families. Their largest category of clients is senior citizens who live alone, the majority of them being widows who can no longer work.  

“We help a lot of people,” said Carol Cross, shown at left helping resident Ernest Montgomery select fresh produce. “From older citizens all the way to families with nine children.”

Cross seems to know everybody who walks through the door. She welcomes clients in as if they were family, and helps them select food to take home.

“Our clients are glad to be helped, and we’re glad to help them,” she said.

The Community Cupboard is made up of 35 active volunteers who dedicate two hours a week to help distribute food. Mini-bag day is when volunteers are most needed.

“It’s amazing how fast the food moves out of here,” said Bob Bulthuis, who’s been volunteering at the Cupboard for three years with his wife. “We’ll get donations at the beginning of the week, and by Thursday there will be empty shelves.”

The amount of food occupying the stock room is mind-boggling and can make any stomach growl. It’s crowded with crates of cans, shelves of non-perishable food, boxes of fresh produce, and lots of peanut butter. There are also several refrigerators full of dairy products and freezers full of frozen pot pies.

Last year, the Cupboard received more than 200,000 pounds of donated food. Donations can come from anywhere in the community. They get their citrus from residents’ own fruit trees, their bread from the local Panera Bread restaurant, and pounds of food from church and school food drives.

The Cupboard receives most of its donations during the holiday season, but in the summer they receive the least. To supplement a decrease in donations, the organization will purchase pallets of food from the Dollar Tree around the corner, or from food banks in Temecula and Riverside. They also buy meat from Winco in bulk.

Prather-Smith said they’re able to make purchases like these thanks to the Community Cupboard Thrift Shop, which was given to them by the Hospice of the Valleys in 2002. Because the store’s revenue pays for all of the Cupboard’s occupancy and personnel costs, they’ve been able to spend more money on perishable foods and fresh produce.

More of their food donations and monetary support come from the annual events they put on, such as Celebrity Karaoke. They raised $17,000 during last year’s event, which featured various leaders around the community.

The Cupboard also puts on a barn dance and food drive every April and November. The event brings together people of all ages in the community to learn old-fashioned circle and line dances while donating to the organization. Donations from Saturday's barn dance included 1,000 pounds of food and $183 cash.

Colleen Ackerman, secretary of the Community Cupboard, teaches the dances alongside her husband, Bill. The idea of a barn dance originated after the success of her 55th birthday celebration, when she rented out the community center of Wheatfield Park for music and dancing. Instead of having her guests bring gifts, she asked them to donate to the Cupboard.

“Everyone loved it and asked, ‘When can we do it again?’” said Ackerman, who teaches yoga at Mt. San Jacinto College. She also serves as chairperson of the dance division for Arts Council Menifee. 

“Now the barn dance is more about supporting the Cupboard, but we still want to focus on bringing the community together,” she said.

The dance is free, but participants are asked to bring at least one non-perishable food item for the cupboard. They can also give a monetary donation. 

The Menifee Valley Community Cupboard is always looking for more donations. A list of what they need and where to donate can be found on their website at Client applications are also available online.

Their office is located at 26808 Cherry Hills Blvd. For information, call 951-301-4414.  

Sales at the Community Cupboard Thrift Shop help support the Cupboard's efforts to provide food for residents.


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