By Rebecca Phillips, University Communications

Syms-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Bright yellow walls and a cartoon painting of Shrek are all that remain of the old Pullman Video Quest. Instead of movie rentals, the former store shelves are lined with canned vegetables and boxed dinners. Off to the side, a 20-foot table sags under the weight of Thanksgiving fare recently donated by WSU student groups.

“We just got a big influx of food from the sororities,” said Annette Syms, president of Pullman Child Welfare, an independent volunteer organization serving area families since 1946.

“Phi Kappa Theta, Delta Delta Delta, Chi Omega and Sigma Kappa all held food drives for us,” she said. “And so did the Fiji House and Orton Hall. This summer, the Evergreen staff did a food drive, which was great as we’re usually empty by then.”

Syms runs the Pullman Child Welfare food bank and said that contributions from the WSU Combined Fund, student groups and university departments make all the difference in keeping the pantry stocked with food.

Donations also provide diapers, receiving blankets and other layette necessities for new mothers. Winter coats and boots are available for children. A few toys line the walls including a giant tawny teddy bear slouched in the corner.

Thanksgiving food challenges

For years, Pullman Child Welfare handed out holiday turkeys, potatoes, stuffing and pie to clients. Recently, they switched to giving food vouchers redeemable at Dissmore’s IGA grocery store.

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Annette Syms, president of Pullman Child Welfare.

“The change was mainly due to dietetic needs – a lot of people didn’t want turkey,” said Syms. Besides seeing an increase in food allergies, she said there are religious and ethnic preferences. And some, such as gout sufferers, can’t eat turkey for medical reasons.

She said the food bank normally pre-packs bags of essential food items. But because of the diversity of the university community, they try to accommodate dietary substitutions. They also offer vegetarian-friendly food bags.

“For Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, we’ll be providing vouchers for 228 families – a mix of senior citizens, students, international families and the working poor,” she said.

“We just received a check from the Combined Fund, which will help pay for the vouchers,” she said. “The cash is nice as donations have been shrinking.”

Syms acknowledged contributions from other WSU departments in the past: athletics held a chili feed and coats-for-kids drive; the college of agriculture requested Christmas gift tags for children; the Alumni Center collected food at a holiday party and many more have participated in the sharing trees located at Walmart and Shopko.

Students from the Center for Civic Engagement volunteer to stock shelves throughout the year.

“WSU has done so much for us in the past and will do more in the present. It’s very appreciated,” said Syms.

Fresh Match program

On the other side of the state, WSU Vancouver Extension is making it easier for limited-income families to increase their fruit and vegetable consumption.

Sandy Brown, professor in food safety and nutrition, recently established a program with local farmers called Fresh Match. Supported by grants from the New Seasons Market grocery store, the program allows food stamp recipients to receive up to $5 in free produce at farmer’s markets.

“Clients use an EBT card now instead of food stamps,” said Brown.

EBT, or electronic benefit transfer, cards work like a debit card for food purchases. This can be a problem at farmer’s markets when vendors don’t have the machines to swipe cards for payment.

With Fresh Match, clients swipe their EBT cards at a special counter to receive tokens that can be exchanged for produce. For each $1 spent on tokens, Fresh Match will match it up to $5.

“We also invite people to visit our Healthy Families booth,” said Brown. “There, we feature a produce of the day, usually something different like eggplant or leeks. We talk about its nutritive value and give them ideas on how to cook it. Then we give them a free bag of that produce.

“We want to help people learn to negotiate the farmer’s market,” she said. “They don’t have to buy a huge amount of one type of produce – they can just get three ears of corn or a couple stalks of something.”

She is seeking grant funding to expand the Fresh Match program into local grocery stores, which would help provide fresh fruit and vegetables year round.