Rhea Co. food pantry remains open despite suspension - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Rhea Co. food pantry remains open despite suspension

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A local food pantry was suspended from the food bank program. Now it's struggling to stock its shelves.

The Chattanooga Area Food Bank said the Rhea County non-profit We Care violated its contract by "selling" food boxes, but the non-profit claims it was a misunderstanding about contributions.

"We have never sold food boxes and donated food," said Laura Richardson, who runs the We Care Food Pantry.

The pantry serves up to 1,000 families each month. Recently, some of them filed complaints with the Chattanooga Area Food Bank, saying they were being solicited for money or donations while picking up food boxes.

Richardson said a donation box used to sit near the food distribution line.

"People could contribute to go towards the cost involved with getting the food here," she said. "But there has never been the selling of food here."

A spokesperson for the Chattanooga Area Food Bank said any monetary donations for food sourced from the food bank violates contract rules and IRS codes.

We Care's contract with the food bank was suspended until May 1. It was the non-profit's main source of food supply.

"I would say a good 75 percent," said Richardson.

Many clients were accustomed to getting three bags of food.

"Now they're getting maybe half a box," Richardson added.

Earl Miller has been visiting the pantry for decades.

"Probably once a week, for me," he said.

Miller explained he's made donations through the years -- by his own will.

"They ain't never asked me to pay for nothin'," Miller said.

According to a Food Bank e-mail sent to We Care: "While we understand this funding stream helps support your efforts, we also understand the implications this noncompliance can have."

The pantry's doors are still open, with help from area churches and local farms.

New signs explaining regulations were put up, and the donation box in question was moved to another room.

"We're trying to be as transparent as possible," said Richardson, who is on the lookout for community donations. "Tell everyone we're still here, we're still open, we're still trying to help you."

The Chattanooga Area Food Bank remains committed to feeding families in Rhea County and continues supplying food to at least 375 families with its mobile food pantry. The CAFB released this statement on the We Care suspension:

It was with great disappointment that we recently confirmed We Care food pantry in Rhea County to be in violation of Feeding America regulations and IRS and USDA guidelines for the second time in two years. The Chattanooga Area Food Bank cannot, in good faith, jeopardize our ability to provide food for our 20-county region by allowing a partner agency to violate state and federal rules and regulations.  We do recognize the 6 month suspension of We Care has the potential to negatively impact the Rhea County community. During the suspension, individuals or families affected are welcome to visit any of our other partner agencies in the area to obtain food.

The next distribution will be held December 20 from 5 - 7 p.m. at The Family Church in Dayton.

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