1,974. This is not the number of lights on the lead float at the East Peoria Festival of Lights Parade. Nor is it the number of people who have signed up for memberships at the new Costco. It is the number of families in the 61611 Zip code who have used the East Peoria Food Pantry this year. East Peoria Food Pantry – located inside the East Peoria First United Methodist Church at 154 E. Washington St. – was started in 1984 by four women who decided that the community had a need for food. Today, the pantry is completely run by volunteers, with 10 to 15 people involved in the daily activity and 10 to 15 more people transporting, purchasing and moving donated foods. Fred Darrah, acting director for the pantry and a volunteer for the last four years, said this has been a tough year for the pantry as they have struggled to keep up with food donations as the need in the community grows for a warm meal to put on the table each night. “This year, we have been averaging about 179 families coming in per month. That’s up 30 a month from last year. In November, we had a huge jump with 226 families served and we are getting new people in each week. Times aren’t too good right now,” Darrah said. Darrah said these numbers are especially staggering because the pantry is only serving Fondulac Township. So far this year, the pantry has served 3,906 adults and 1,982 children. “We get people in here from time to time that live outside the area we serve and we still give them enough food to get them by until they can go to their local food bank,” Darrah said. Darrah said the volunteers purchase most of their food at retail prices at places like Aldi and some items are bought in bulk at other pantries such as the Peoria Food Bank and Midwest Food Bank. “We normally purchase items like canned vegetables, tuna, macaroni and cheese, soups, fruit, spaghetti and sauce and canned ravioli. We try to find pasta with meats for protein or canned meats and fruit,” Darrah said. “We like to offer a variety of items because people get bored fixing the same stuff all the time,” he added. Darrah said the pantry also provides baby food and diapers, personal hygiene supplies, toys, books, new shoes, and clothing items. However, Darrah said their current supply is going to run out quickly because the pantry – which is open for two hours every Monday afternoon – will be closed on Christmas Eve so there will be a rush of families in the weeks prior to that wanting to stock up for the holidays. “Christmas seems to be a good time for us to get in lots of donations, but I’m afraid it’s not going to carry us through on a permanent basis. We need to find places that want to consider donating both food items and money regularly. Even if we could just find an institution to give us a discount or sponsorship for food, that would help,” Darrah said. In addition to help from the church congregation and other area food banks, Darrah said they also receive donations from time to time from Panera, Kroger, MTI Institute and East Peoria Central Jr. High School. The church also runs a Snack Pac program that provides a sack of food to free and reduced lunch students at Shute and Lincoln Schools. This year, they have served 70 students at Shute and 57 at Lincoln. “The sacks have two breakfast and two lunch items plus snacks to make sure a child will have food on the weekends. The percentage of kids eligible for this program is quite high. Between the church and the pantry, we are trying to pull our load in the community for the food-deprived,” Darrah said. Darrah said it is quite easy for those in need to sign up for the pantry program as well. “We are here every Monday from 1 to 3 p.m. We have papers to sign to show they make less than a certain amount of money and there are penalties involved if they aren’t honest. We don’t require anything except a picture ID and a piece of mail showing the address and Zip code,” Darrah said. Darrah said they have never had to ask for community support until the last few years as the need has increased dramatically. In 2012, the pantry also didn’t receive any support from FEMA. “I really hope we don’t have to reduce our services, but the numbers don’t lie. We need help if we are to continue serving our community. I’m very worried about these next few weeks and beyond that,” Darrah said. For more information or to help donate to the East Peoria Food Pantry program, visit www.epfumc.com or call 699-5417.