ORANGE PARK – The 15-car lot at the Orange Park Clothes Closet and Food Pantry was jammed packed. Cars are parked 40 feet down the road, trunks popped open to accommodate the brown paper bags …
ORANGE PARK – The 15-car lot at the Orange Park Clothes Closet and Food Pantry was jammed packed. Cars are parked 40 feet down the road, trunks popped open to accommodate the brown paper bags filled with fresh meat, produce, as well as packaged and canned goods.
“Between food prices, rent prices, gas prices, and COVID, this past year has been really tough,” said Pantry President Mandy Nelson. “We’ve had a huge spike this year. In years past, we allowed people to come every three months. Now, we deliver food every month.”
Nearly 6,000 Orange Park and Fleming Island residents come through the pantry doors yearly to receive essentials. In 2021 there were 1,814 households – and a total of 6,172 individuals served. And that only was for food.
In 2022, there were more than 3,050 households and 10,958 individuals served.
“We have seen an 84.7% increase in food needs over the course of five years,” Nelson said.
And this is just in Orange Park and on Fleming Island.
Last year, the Clothes Closet and Food Pantry celebrated its 70th year as an organization as one of the longest-standing Food Pantries in Clay County. It has changed locations nine times. Its current location at 1010 Fromhart St., across from the Orange Park Athletic Association fields, was built in 1996. Since then, the Closet has expanded twice to provide for overflow and the county's growing need for food and clothing assistance.
“For clothing, they can come in every four months. Per person, they can get three of each item- shirts, pants, that kind of thing, with the exception of pajamas, coats, and purses. They can only take one of those. Shoes are two, but everything else they can get three of. And that’s three times a year,” Nelson said.
Items that don’t make it onto the main floor are tossed into trailer bins and sent to textiles in South Carolina for a nickle a pound.
“They come in fast and furious. It’s amazing. The community is very giving. What we need now are sorters,” Nelson said.
On the back wall, an overflow of black trashbags lies a large, mountainous heap, nearly to the ceiling, under a painting of Baby Jesus.
“If we get up to Baby Jesus there, it's a fire code,” she said.
The carpeted floor where rows of clothes hung on metal racks becomes a grey linoleum, transitioning into a lighter shade at the far end of the building. The unstable Kmart shelves stacked with diapers, baby wipes, feminine products, toothbrushes, clothes detergent and toiletries, have been transformed into industrial, standing shelves.
“Half the time, we didn’t know what was over here because they have time to stock the shelves, so we ended up with all these boxes everywhere,” said Secretary of the Board Kathy Ray. “So we put in better shelving which has been a key thing for us. Storage is huge. The more we can put out, the more we can do for our clients.”
Currently, the Closet receives deliveries from Winn Dixie and Walmart, as well as donations from local churches. They also work with food banks such as the Good Samaritan Food Pantry and Green Cove Springs Food Pantry. “We’ve had Orange Park donate funds, Hagan Ace Hardware and County Cruisers. We’ve got some interesting organizations who have helped out,” Nelson said.
In 2021, the Clothes Closet and Food Pantry received a State Farm Neighborhood Assist grant, awarded to 100 nonprofits nationwide.
“There were only 100 nonprofits nationwide that received $25,000 and we were one of the hundred,” said grant writer, Anita Aultman. On average, the Food Pantry supports 60 and 70 families a week and spends $5,000 to $6,000 on food. “It made a tremendous difference,” she said.
The Closet continues to expand to assist Clay County residents through challenges and enable them to stand on their own two feet. However, it’s no easy task.
“Clay County has been amazing. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to keep our doors open,” Nelson said. “But we need volunteers to help us get out these donations.”
The operation is run entirely by volunteers.
“Our volunteer base has been down 25% since COVID. Our biggest need right now is sorting and volunteers to work in our food pantry,” Nelson said.
For more information about the Orange Park Clothes Closet and Food Pantry or to become a volunteer, contact their office at (904) 264 5239. Clients must be referred within 30 days of their request for services. Clients must also bring in valid identification and proof of address with acceptable zip codes 32006, 32073, 32065, 32097 and 32003.