New help for the hungry

HOWLAND – While growing up in the Warren area, Scott Cluckey understood all too well the problems associated with being poor and barely scraping by.

One of six children, the 30-year-old Warren G. Harding High School graduate watched as tough conversations ensued regarding which bills would be paid that month.

“There were times where we wondered if the utilities were going to be shut off or where food was going to come from,” Cluckey said during an interview at his Howland home. “We didn’t even have a house phone when I was growing up.”

Those trying moments brought on by poverty motivated Cluckey to do whatever it takes to provide an easier life for his children when the time came.

“I knew there had to be something out there that could be better than that,” Cluckey said. “I couldn’t settle for that kind of life.”

Now, with seven children of his own, he is making sure to create an easier road not just for his large family, but for people across the Valley and beyond.

Cluckey is the founder and president of Smart Choice Food Source program, distributing discounted food boxes to residents looking to save money on groceries.

The program began in December 2010, and originally focused on feeding about 30 families through Solid Rock Christian Church in Masury, where Cluckey serves as a pastor.

It got an unexpected boost, however, when another, larger food program – Angel Food Ministries – closed its doors.

“I never looked at them as a competitor or anything, because we were just a little tiny food program in Northeast Ohio,” Cluckey said of the program that operated in more than 44 states.

However, the closure created a void in the realm of discounted grocery options for families.

“When I started this, I wasn’t really looking to do that kind of large operation,” Cluckey said. “But, when Angel Food Ministries closed, we started getting calls from distributors asking what we thought about expanding. We decided to go ahead and do it.”

Cluckey teamed up with Atlantic Foods Corp. in Cincinnati to handle heavier traffic. Since the partnership, Smart Choice has expanded to feeding between 2,600 to 3,000 families in 10 states.

“It’s starting to pick up,” Cluckey said. “I always tell people we’re probably the best kept secret on saving money for food.”

The program works by disseminating menus across its website and through partnering churches which act as distribution conduits. The food boxes vary in price and there are no income requirements for customers.

Currently, six churches in Trumbull and Mahoning counties work as distributors for the program.

Linda Lemay, with Simon Road Church of God in Boardman, said the food is of a higher quality than people might expect.

“It’s very good, actually,” Lemay said. “We haven’t gotten any complaints at all.”

Lemay would like to see more people take advantage of the program. Her church fills about 10 orders each month. The churches receives $1 for each large box sold.

“We’re trying to let people know it’s out there,” Lemay said. “The more finances go down, the more people need the help.”

Judy Sutton of Smith Corners United Methodist Church in Canfield said her 45-person congregation averages about 15 orders per month.

“With RG Steel and other businesses closing, a lot of people are in need of some help. Actually, my husband is affected by the economy, too. The program helps because there aren’t any restrictions if they feel like you have too much income.”

One encounter in particular sticks with Cluckey as the reason he got involved in the program at the start.

“As we were carrying an elderly woman’s food boxes out to her car, she grabbed ahold of me and was just balling her eyes out,” Cluckey said. “She told me because I was able to find this and buy this, I’m actually able to take my medicine this month. I don’t have to choose between food and prescriptions or I don’t have to cut my pills in half anymore.

“When you hear that and you hear from people that are really in need, it makes you feel good about what you’re doing,” he said.

“That way everyone is on the same level,” Cluckey said. “Whether you’re a family who qualifies for assistance or not, everybody will get the same quality of food without sacrifice.”

From chicken breasts to steamed broccoli, many of the items available through Smart Choice are referred to as “seconds,” meaning foods set aside by large restaurant chains because they are slightly misshapen or they made too much of a product.

“We can’t necessarily use the name brand on our menu or for advertising, but a lot of our food might came from McDonalds, AppleBees and others,” Cluckey said. “They stack their chicken nuggets up and they all look exactly the same. If there are nuggets that are misshapen, they are kicked off of the line.

“It’s the same food and the same quality, just not exactly the right shape,” he continued.