It may be a small city, but hunger looms large in Niangua.
With a population of 405 noted at the last census, some 75% of students in the Niangua R-V School District qualify for free or reduced lunch, and many families know the keen stab of hunger.
But there is hope, and it’s found in a tidy red metal building on Olive Street. Inside, dry and canned goods neatly line repurposed book shelves, and refrigerators and freezers hum patiently along one wall.
The Niangua Community Food Pantry just opened at the site in mid-September. Bonnie Looney, its president, can hardly believe the luck of having such a nice, new facility.
"Niangua is one of the poorest areas anywhere, so we’re always appreciating donations," she said. "I walked in here the other day and I couldn’t believe we had this much room!"
The food pantry was founded in June of 2012. Previously, it was located in the high school, where superintendent TJ Bransfield offered free space, first in a vacant room inside the school building and then in a former shop room. “That’s how much he loves his kids,” said Looney of the superintendent.
Through grants and donations, the food pantry’s board of directors raised enough money to build the pole building that now houses the food supplies.
It was a long journey, according to Looney, who noted that the lot was purchased five years ago with the intention to eventually build.
Becky Kay is an unstoppable force who has devoted her later years to battling what feels like a nearly insurmountable challenge in Niangua: hunger. She is grateful for the donations that have been offered by the community in the effort to combat need. In a recent interview, she ticked off the items and services that were donated to establish the new pantry location: electric and heating systems, concrete and concrete work — "All of it has been donated," she said. While the pantry board bought the building itself, electrical systems and outlets, sheet rock and insulation were all provided by donors — and so was labor.
Looney recalled one neighborhood kid who was riding by on his bike when volunteers were moving into the pantry. The young man, elementary aged, stopped and parked his bike, then grabbed a box and began to help with the move.
"He came to help carry things in, just because," Looney said. "We’ve got awesome people here in Niangua."
Kay agreed. "That's why we want to give back,” she said.
Kay’s great-granddaughter, Skyler Dudley, an eighth-grader at Niangua, was able to report firsthand some of the need she sees every day at school.
“There are a few people, you can tell that they can get really hungry,” she said. It is not unusual, according to Dudley, to see people asking for leftover food at lunchtime.
“Sometimes it’s kind of hard, but it feels better to give. There are some people in my classes that are kind of hungry.”
The school does a few food drives to benefit the pantry each year. Dudley’s team build an art project last year — she described a large lighthouse made out of soup cans and water bottles, and this seems appropriate. It’s easy to see how the giving spirit of Nianguans, young and old, are a beacon on the community, and especially a boon to the pantry and the people it serves.
"We’re just grateful for all the people who came together and made it happen," said Looney.
Added Kay, “We just thank the Good Lord for all of this. Without God’s help, we couldn’t do this, but we trusted God and it came about.”
The pantry is open on the third Saturday of the month from 9 a.m. to noon, and provisions are also available on an emergency basis.