Some people think that operating a food pantry is old hat, that we need something new. In a sense, they are right. We should be looking for ways to help people that come to a food pantry to find the help or resources that they need in order to provide for themselves. That would be ideal. Self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal. Obviously, people don’t want to have to use a pantry. They want to make it on their own. People are often embarrassed and even a little scared the first time they come in to a pantry. They’d rather not have to and honestly we’d like nothing more than to have our neighbors not need us here. The fact remains though, year after year for over 30 years, we’ve seen thousands more people come to us in need. Not just need, but emergency need. It is one thing to come up short on rent, it is quite another to have to choose between paying rent and buying food.
This emergency needs work is ‘unsexy’, it isn’t very exciting. It’s true! But 10,000 families had groceries when they needed them, because of this ‘unsexy’ work, we did at The Pantry last year. Donations of over 500,000 pounds of food meant over 650,000 meals were prepared by our neighbors. Neighbors like Barb and Julie came and got the help they needed. Barb is in her 50s and divorced a few years ago, no children. Her husband was abusive and they had money issues before divorcing. After the divorce, she was saddled with some extensive bills, there is only so much that a bankruptcy will clear. Despite her best efforts and hard work, full-time employment has been out of her reach and a person can’t make a comfortable living in part-time retail sales. She came to The Pantry the other day with her friend Julie. They were inseparable and so embarrassed and scared to be in a food pantry. I’m not sure what they were expecting, but I could tell they needed someone to treat them with dignity and understanding. It isn’t every day that the Executive Director of a non-profit walks a neighbor through their facility for services, but this situation required it. Julie is in her early 60s and recently retired from working in education, not as a teacher, but as an assistant and library helper. She has diabetes and couldn’t work any longer because being on her feet all day caused her a great deal of pain. Forced into an early retirement by medical issues, not having a teacher’s pension because she was a para-pro, Julie is living off her Social Security check, which she had to start collecting in her early 60s meaning with the lowest possible pay out. As we all know, life isn’t cheap! Surprises and upsets in the apple cart can happen to anyone, at any time. Eventually, Barb and Julie started to calm down and realized they were going to get the help they had come for. As we walked through the pantry they remarked how wonderful it was to get fresh produce, the selection was wonderful. They were so pleased. Did we change their lives? No, probably not. Were their immediate needs for food met? Yes. Is this work ‘sexy’? No, not in the least. But it is needed!
So, what programs do volunteers and donors consider ‘sexy’? Things like workforce development, financial and physical health management classes are definitely more exciting. And we do offer some of those things as well, with the intention of doing more of this down the road. Those ‘sexy’ programs though can only engage a small number of the 33,000 people who come through our doors each year. A program that involves extensive personal development with group sessions and case management can engage maybe 10-20 people at a time. Those ‘sexy’ programs can’t be the only programming that receives financial support from donors. More and more though, grants seem to be geared towards these programs, funneling more and more resources into programming that serves fewer and fewer people. That is all well, fine and good, but there is still a need to fund emergency services like food pantry. We see the food need work we do as essential and central to our mission. It isn’t the be all, end all of charitable work, but it is the central hub of our work and the other services and programming that we provide are the spokes that radiate out from the center. Those spokes, for obvious reasons serve a smaller number of individuals. These spokes are where we can be innovative and do new work, but we can’t ignore the need for emergency food pantry and we are hoping that volunteers and donors won’t ignore the need for this essential service either, regardless of how ‘unsexy’ it might be.