Volunteers sort and bag fresh produce to be distributed to residents visiting the Burton Memorial Food Pantry. KELLIE BUTLER FARRELL/Keys Weekly

Thursday evenings inside the Burton Memorial United Methodist Church food pantry can only be described as bustling. Energetic volunteers welcome patrons with a hearty hot meal; tonight, homemade chili with rice and green beans is on the menu. 

On Thursday evenings, Keys residents are also able to stock up on food, leaving with a shopping cart full of meats, produce, breads, non-perishables and desserts.

This pantry has been serving the Upper Keys community for more than 20 years, but now, more than ever, it is a godsend.

“I’ve been down here 18 years and it’s just getting progressively worse with the inflation and everything. It shouldn’t be a decision to pay your bills or buy food,” said Key Largo resident Teresa Lybarger. Lybarger, who works as an office manager in the Upper Keys, stopped by the food pantry on her way home from work. 

Like Lybarger, most of the people visiting this food pantry have jobs, but just don’t make enough to make ends meet living in the Keys.

“All the costs are going up and the salaries aren’t matching it,” explained Lybarger.

“The vast majority of people down here that use our food pantry, they’re not homeless, they have jobs but it costs so much to live down here they can’t balance the two,” said Burton Memorial Pastor Kerry Foote. Foote says the average person who comes to the food pantry is what’s called an ALICE, a United Way acronym which stands for “asset limited, income constrained, employed.” 

“We had someone come in here earlier who had got evicted, and finding housing down here is just ridiculous,” added Foote.

Foote estimates this pantry feeds 50 to 60 families a week. So far, between donations from Feeding South Florida, Publix, Winn-Dixie, as well as community grants and individual contributions, the pantry has been able to meet the growing need, but at times the staff  must be innovative.

For example, the pantry recently acquired 60 10-pound logs of frozen hamburger meat, too much to distribute to a single family. Payfair Supermarket stepped in and offered to use its band saw to cut the meat into one-pound servings, suitable for distribution. 

“What’s been amazing is how the community surrounds this food pantry and helps it out,” said  Foote.

Cindi Miller, the pantry coordinator, said patrons are like family members and volunteers are quick to identify needs, even when it comes to pets.

“We know who has dogs and cats because we do have dog and cat food. We feed everyone. So if they come in and say ‘my puppy’s hungry this week,’ not a problem,” said Miller.

Thanks to support from the community and an army of volunteers, the pantry is doing well. 

“In January I was getting worried but then we started getting these massive deliveries,” said intake coordinator Adele Budd.

Foote said food donations usually drop during the summer.

“If you’re looking to give, don’t wait until Thanksgiving or Christmas, give during the summer,” he urged.

Extra help at the pantry is always welcome. Those interested in volunteering can call the church to donate their time and help in areas like stocking shelves and bagging groceries.

For individuals in a position to donate food, canned foods and dried goods are always appreciated. 

“If they want to give, we’ve suggested go get the BOGOs (buy one, get one free) and give us the free one and you take the one that you buy,” said Foote. “Recently we had someone do Instacart and send it to us as a gift,” he said.

For Keys residents who rely on the pantry to get by, every bit of help goes a long way.

“I’m just very grateful and appreciative we have this service in the Keys,” said Lybarger.

The food pantry is open on Mondays and Wednesdays from 9 a.m. to noon and on Thursdays from 5 to 7 p.m. Hot meals are also provided on Thursday evenings.

More information is at 305-852-2581 or www.bmumc.net.

Kellie Butler Farrell is a journalist who calls Islamorada home. Kellie spent two decades in television news and also taught journalism at Barry University in Miami and Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, UAE. She loves being outside, whether spending time on the water or zipping down the Old Highway on her electric bike, Kellie is always soaking up the island lifestyle. Kellie and her husband own an electric bike rental company, Keys Ebikes.