Among the more than 350 local residents and families lined up Wednesday to receive 50-pound boxes of fresh, frozen and canned foods was retired pre-K teacher Mary Ann McCollum pulling a plastic crate on wheels.
“I used to carry all of my lesson plans in this crate and then turn it over and use it as a desk,” said McCollum, who at 65 has been battling breast cancer and juggling medical bills. “This program sure helps out. It really does when you’ve got a lot of things going on and bills are piling up. It’s kind of rough.”
McCollum was just one of more than 4,786 individuals and families who have benefited from the Floyd County Schools Child Nutrition Department’s Pop-Up Food Market partnership with Atlanta Community Food Bank over the past year.
Once distributed from various schools, the program’s food boxes are now packed and passed out each month at the Coosa Valley Village Building at the Fairgrounds in Rome with the help of volunteers like Janis Johnson of East Rome.
“I have a heart for people who don’t have food and this is my opportunity to give back,” Johnson said as she dropped packets of dijon vinegar salad dressing in boxes that laid end-to-end would reach across two football fields. “I was raised to pinch a penny until it screamed and I know what it’s like to count every penny and budget. You don’t waste it.”
Donna Carver, Floyd County Schools’ Child Nutrition director, teams up with Rome-Floyd County YMCA Community Development Director Stephanie McElhone each month to organize and facilitate the program that does not require recipients to prove income level or need.
It was Carver who told the Atlanta Community Food Bank in 2018 that Rome could handle the effort that before had not been tried outside the Atlanta metro-area.
“We now run the biggest monthly free food market,” Carver said proudly as she directed yet another volunteer from the YMCA who was helping pack the boxes. “We’ve made it 14 months and love using the fairgrounds now because the schools had construction going on or had scheduling conflicts. The fairgrounds have really welcomed us and we’ll stay for as long as they’ll have us.”
McElhone said she was grateful for the cooler weather Wednesday as it was tough for residents to wait in line during the summer months when the temperature was pushing 100.
“We had people falling over out here, it was so hot,” she said.
Although those needing the food are not required to meet certain income levels to be eligible, they are limited to one box per household and their addresses are checked as they enter the Village Building.
McElhone made sure those in line were aware of the rules.
“You’re on the honor system,” McElhone told them. “If you take more than one box for your home, those nice people at the back of the line won’t get anything. Don’t cheat the system!”
Jessie Williams, who used to drive a truck for the City of Rome, was the first in line. He was in a motorized wheelchair after a severe leg break led to the loss of his right leg.
Williams, a Rome resident for 61 years, said this was the fourth time he’s taken advantage of the program.
“Every time I’ve come it’s been really good food,” he said. “Stuff you can really use.”