Thursday, October 28, 2010

Feeding A Need

Around the time I 1st bought my house in the Heights, roughly 6 years ago, the rhetoric about the neighborhood involved a lot of "Do you think it will be safe?" or "Well, what are you going to do when you have kids?" Granted, these types of questions mostly came from work associates who lived in the suburbs, but it was indicative of the times and looking back now shows how much times have changed. The reputation of a neighborhood takes time to catch up with the reality of what that neighborhood is, so while it was safe and family oriented in 2004 people outside the Beltway didn't really know that until recently. Now, when I say I live in the Heights, I get lots of "Oooo, I love the Heights" and "Oh, I hear that is a wonderful area." This new reputation has it's pros and cons, to be sure (and I know I don't need to spell those out for you), but the neighborhood deserves the positivity. I do still miss rolling my eyes at those questions though.

However, even as we get close to the end of that "gentrification" cycle, we remain a mixed neighborhood. In many parts of the Heights, or very close by, working class families live next to young professions and middle class families. Poor in one house, not poor in the next. While the Heights Blvd walking path may be a great place to scope out the latest and greatest baby gear, in other parts of our own neighborhood, families are struggling to put food on their tables.

Luckily, families and individuals in need have a place where they can get some of the basic things the rest of us take for granted. The Heights Interfaith Ministries Food Bank is where neighbors help neighbors; those with more in the Heights can help those with less in the Heights.

The Heights Food Bank, a collaboration of Christ the King Catholic, St. Mark's United Methodist, The Vinyard and Zion Lutheran Churches in the Heights, serves families and individuals in need on a weekly basis. The majority of their clients are what are known as "the working poor"- people who work but are living paycheck to paycheck, having trouble paying their bills and providing basic food and household needs at the same time. Demand has increased at the Food Bank in recent months due to a shaky economy. Many local families are struggling as one or both parents take a cut in income or lose their job altogether. And, of course, then there is the fact that donations are dropping for the same reasons.

The shelf for orange juice sits empty. Juice is one of the high demand products. It still amazes me that a family can get a 2 liter of soda for $.99 but the cost of a healthy alternative is prohibitive.

The Pantry opened it's doors in June of 2009. Since opening, they have served the needs of 16,644 people from zip codes 77008 and 77009. They expect the number to increase significantly by this time in 2011. In just the last couple of months, the number of clients (family units or individuals) coming on Saturdays has doubled. The Pantry is providing for 70-100 clients a week. One thing that surprised me is that when you look at the monthly numbers, there is no double dipping. A client can only come by the Pantry every 30 days. The one exception to this is the homeless population. Homeless are welcome to come more often for several reasons, one being that they typically take a very small amount, only enough to last a couple days at a time.

A dry erase board keeps a tally of the clients the Pantry serves. In their 1st year, 2009, they served just over 6100 people. They have served that many almost twice over again this year and demand is growing. The happy heart on the bottom reminds us that, as a local organization, this is "Neighbors helping Neighbors."

When the doors open on a typical Saturday morning, there will already be families waiting. At the door, they are issued a number, keeping order as more families and individuals arrive. When their number is called, a volunteer will escort them to an interview area. The family will have to present both a photo ID and a bill or piece of mail showing their 77008-77009 address. While the intention is to serve these zip codes, Co-Director of Operations Alice Bongers says they never turn anyone away and occasionally get someone from outside the area. Still, helping people means helping all people and who could turn away someone in need?

After their client card is created, they talk with the volunteer about their needs and a food authorization ticket is issued. The ticket will list the number of adults and children in the family, what their biggest needs are and also some small details like are they driving or walking, which can make a big difference in what they are able to take. Alice says that paying attention to these small details makes a big difference in how well the Pantry serves its clients.

A recent donation of 12,000 LBS of pork patties and ground beef had Alice giddy as a school girl. She couldn't wait to show me the newly stocked fridge which had been sitting empty just a few days before. While 12k LBS is undoubtably a huge donation and a real boon, it will only last the Pantry about 4 weeks.

Alice says that the clients are often eager to show their appreciation for the help the Pantry offers. The Pantry is a 100% volunteer organization, not one paid staff member. Often, volunteer needs are filled by their clients as a way to give back and say "thank you." They are in need of volunteers at any time, especially bi-lingual speakers to assist with the interview process. If you have a couple hours on a Saturday, the Heights Pantry could really use your help. If Saturdays don't work, Alice and her volunteers work when they can and she is open to finding a way to use your time.

Volunteer Mary O'Sullivan worked with Alice mid-day on a Wednesday. I just happened to call and see about dropping off some bags, lucky to find them there. Sorting donations is just one of the many areas where you (and your family) can volunteer to help your neighbors.

  • Pasta sauce
  • Canned soups- especially with pull tab tops
  • Canned vegetables
  • Soap and toiletries
  • Tampons and feminine hygiene products
  • Diapers
Pasta with sauce is an easy and filling meal for a family. These staples are always in high demand and low supply at the Pantry.

While the Pantry does not necessarily collect clothes, they will take donations of items in good condition. Clothing is laid out and clients are able to "shop" it, taking a few useful items for their family.

Unlike some other food pantries, Heights Interfaith Ministries Food Pantry gladly accepts perishable items like fresh veggies and meat. St Mark's Church actually has a garden that grows some veggies for the Pantry. They have also partnered with Urban Harvest for some donations but fresh fruit and vegetables are something that is so out of reach cost-wise for many low income families. If you can grab a couple of large bags of apples at Costco, you can help a lot of families get something healthy in the cupboards!

Canned soups are another high demand item. The Pantry volunteers try to keep the ones with pop tops for the homeless, who may not have access to can openers. Other easy open, shelf stable foods are also appreciated.

The Heights Interfaith Food Pantry
3523 Beauchamp
Thurdays 5-7 PM & Saturdays 9 AM- Noon
Alice Bongers also welcome you to call her with questions or to volunteer.

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