Brown Bag of Columbus struggles to stay alive

Shirley Moore helped Myrtice Davis pick out a burgundy-colored suit. Davis needed a blouse to match. Moore held up one that seemed to go with it. “I think that would be pretty,” Moore said, and Davis seemed pleased. In another room, shoppers browsed the shelves of food and toiletries. As Brown Bag of Columbus nears its 25th anniversary, it’s unsure what the next 25 will look like.

Like many non-profits, Brown Bag has fallen on hard times in the weak economy.

With no government funding, the 501(c)(3) is supported solely by individuals and groups.

“The need is great,” said Brown Bag director Vilma Feliciano.

Brown Bag is open Monday-Thursday every third week of the month containing the third Wednesday. It’s housed in several rooms in the back of Eastern Heights Baptist Church on 17th Street. Deliveries are also available to those who can’t get out of their home.

About 18,000 Columbus-area residents are considered low-income, and 12 percent of those -- 2,000-plus -- are elderly. Brown Bag serves about 400 people a month, and wants to do more.

Brown Bag began in July 1987, with the distributions starting from the Interfaith Food Bank on 10th Avenue.

The ministry was originally in the old Hinson Gallery building where the food bank allowed Brown Bag to use one of its store rooms to help 40 individuals a month. By the end of 1989, Brown Bag moved to a bigger site at Rose Hill Baptist Church, and 100 elderly were being assisted.

In 2004, the ministry moved to Eastern Heights Baptist Church, in what used to be the church’s day care center.

“Over the last 24 years, donations from our community have provided thousands with this much needed program,” Feliciano said.

In years past, Brown Bag was able to get all its donated food from Feeding the Valley, the local food bank that receives government funds. But Feliciano said the government stopped all but 10 percent of that because Brown Bag gave only to the elderly, and was deemed discriminatory. Feliciano has always figured that younger people, notably children, have access to free food and clothing; and that it’s the elderly who fall through the cracks. Feliciano said most of her clients live “thousands below the poverty level.”

That level is $10,890 a year for a single household (slightly higher in Alaska and Hawaii); and $14,710 a year for a two-person family, according to the department of Health and Human Services.

After its food supply got cut 90 percent from the food bank, Brown Bag had to rely on paying retail. Though Feliciano and Brown Bag volunteers shop for bargains and items in bulk, retail is still higher than food bank prices. When Brown Bag could get all its food from the food bank, it cost about $36 a year per person, but now it’s $125.

Rufus Riggs, who leads Brown Bag’s board, was helping load bread, cheese and deodorant into a sack for a guest on a recent weekday.

Retired from the city of Columbus, Riggs started volunteering at Brown Bag about eight years ago.

“I saw a commercial about Brown Bag feeding the elderly and I wanted to help,” he said. “I always felt like God was good to me and blessed me with good health, and I had a lot to give.

“Our greatest problem is having enough money to continue to do what we do,” he said.

Feliciano said she’s keeping the faith that Brown Bag will stay open. The organization pays no rent to Eastern Heights, but helps with utilities.

Brown Bag is meant as a stop-gap for folks, not a full-service store. Patrons can receive up to 15 items. They include eggs, canned goods, rice, tuna, canned vegetables and soaps, toothbrushes and toothpaste and deodorant.

“This gives them confidence that they can feed themselves,” said Riggs. “I can’t imagine what that feels like.”

Dylan Carver, 18, is about to start school at Columbus Technical College. He helped Riggs pack groceries for the shoppers.

“This is definitely something I would do again -- knowing you’re helping someone,” Carver said.