It’s another busy morning at CAP’s Grateful Bread Food Pantry.
The loading dock is wide open, and from across the crowded parking lot the pantry storage area is visibly teeming with activity. Pallets of non-perishable items are swiftly being shuffled and rearranged to maximize space near the entryway. Staff are circulating in and out of the auxiliary doors at a steady pace, allowing the warm August breeze intermittent entry into the storefront, causing the edges of the bread bags to rustle lightly. Customers of the adjacent Grateful Threadz Thrift Store periodically emerge with bags full of discounted clothing, stopping by the action to offer warm greetings to the pantry staff before retreating to their vehicles. There is so much movement around this structure that, from a distance, it almost takes on the quality of a living organism or a swarming beehive.
While this is not an atypical day at the food pantry, in terms of activity, enthusiasm, and productivity, there are special guests expected this particular morning. First, representatives from the local government arrive, including the Rockcastle County judge executive and his staff, and begin to congregate alongside the food pantry staff in the parking lot. Shortly thereafter, a small box truck slowly pulls in from the main road and comes to a stop near the loading dock. The truck is piloted by the Kentucky agriculture commissioner and the head of the Kentucky-based food network, God’s Pantry Food Bank. They are here to deliver a new freezer to CAP’s food pantry, which will give the organization additional cold storage for the meats and produce it distributes.
“The city and county governments have been extremely supportive of our work all along,” explains Carolyn Lindsey, manager of Grateful Bread Food Pantry. “And our relationships with organizations like God’s Pantry, and corporate partners like Wal-Mart and Panera, have certainly enhanced our ability to meet the needs of children and their families, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities in our community. But we have also become a sort of “food hub” for the surrounding area – we are the only food pantry with the capacity to put these additional resources to use in a way that connects them directly to people in need.”
Unlike most typical community food banks, Grateful Bread is open five days per week, is fully staffed by employees and volunteers, and is sustained by the synergy of CAP’s vast network of programs, services, and resources. These assets allow the food pantry to operate in entirely different capacities than traditional pantry models – the sheer volume of food and commodities coming in and going out of the pantry on a regular basis is staggering. Cans, boxes, produce, breads, and meats circulate constantly through the store room, being distributed at a high pace in order to always make room for the next round of goods.
“Although this program initially began as just a closet of food in the Family Advocacy Program office, it has been able to grow and evolve and mature as compassionate donors respond to the need in our region,” Lindsey asserts. “This growth, through these gifts, has put us in a position to play an active role in our community in facing the challenges of food insecurity and hunger. I think, in particular, our ability to provide supplemental food support to children through the Backpack Program and our partnership with the local schools in general is a testament to the value of what we’re doing here.”
The work of the food pantry is absolutely critical for hungry people in the region. In Kentucky, 21.9 percent of children are food insecure, which means that 222,380 children live in households where they are not guaranteed their next meal. One in six people in Kentucky struggles with hunger and that number is even higher in counties served by CAP. In the coming years, the organization aims to expand its hunger initiatives throughout the region by opening and/or partnering in six additional food pantries. This will require more resources and increased funds to underwrite the growth, but the need is critical and demands immediate action.
The new freezer, being slowly lowered from the box truck, has captivated the onlookers in the parking lot at the pantry. There is a sense of gratitude and wonder at yet another gift that will immediately begin to help feed people in need. The box is finally safe and secure on the ground. The agriculture commissioner does the honors, cutting open the bindings and releasing the freezer from its temporary casing. As the lid is raised and the pantry staff peer down into the deep emptiness of the cooler, it is obvious that they are already calculating the volume of frozen goods they will be able to fit into the unit. Thanks to community partnerships, it will be filled in no time.
Lindsey describes CAP’s long-standing relationship with a local Wal-Mart store, “We send our truck to pick up produce donations from Wal-Mart three days a week. They’ve always been very good to us. Sometimes we get meat, sometimes dairy – it’s just whatever items they have in surplus or that they need to rotate out of the coolers to make space for new items. We’ll receive as much as 2,000 pounds of meat, produce, and dairy in a single pick-up, so it’s more than most organizations can transport, store, and distribute before any of the products go bad.”
Relationships like this not only benefit CAP participants, they also provide a means and a method by which businesses and corporations can contribute locally to people in need. _e local Panera Bread also contributes surplus and end-of-day bakery items to CAP three days per week – sometimes in excess of 500 pounds of bread in one delivery. Not only do the baked goods represent a substantive, filling food for participants, it also introduces them to items with which some have never been exposed.
“The various types of breads that are out there – sometimes we have to explain to the participants what certain items are, assure them that it’s okay to eat, and that it tastes good. The number of people we’ve introduced to bagels has been unbelievable to me, because we always get a wide variety of bagels and to many of us they seem so common and available,” Lindsey reflects. “It also gives them an opportunity, especially with their desserts, cookies, and cinnamon rolls, to have a treat. That’s a luxury they don’t often get – for them to be able to come into our pantry and get a different dessert for every household member. It’s neat to be able to give this extra bonus, these types of foods that they would never spend money to buy for themselves.”
Food pantry staff often walk through with participants to assist them in their shopping, offering recipe ideas and suggestions for how to prepare some of the less familiar bakery items, produce, and meats. This store-based model, wherein participants are given the space to take their cart around the shelves and choose their own food items based on preferences and need, contributes to the overall feeling of comfort and serves to preserve the dignity of people in need of supplemental food support. It also creates a space for relationships to be formed between employees, volunteers, and participants.
“I think all CAP programs are focused on building relationships with the people they serve,” Lindsey explains, “so when we individually take the time to shop with participants, it’s not just about giving them food – it’s about building that relationship and getting to know their needs. They have other needs beyond just food. But you’re not going to know that if you don’t take the time to sit, or to stand, or walk around with them. That’s one reason we do the shopping the way we do, so we can build those relationships and make referrals to other agencies or CAP programs when necessary.”
Lindsey continues, “We just had a pantry participant who had been coming in here for years, and he had a relationship with all the staff, and he just passed away over the weekend. He used to take the cabbage we would give him and he would can kraut and then bring it back and give it to the staff. These are the kind of relationships we are building. Lloyd didn’t just come by because he needed food, he came by to visit. This was his place to get to interact and to socialize with people. His sisters have already come by to see us, because they know we are praying for them and their family. You have to take the time for people, and we do that here.”
The forklift sounds a rhythmic, atonal beep as it backs away from the freezer. The new addition fits snugly beside the existing appliances at the back of the store room and as the unit is plugged in, the motor begins to purr. As the esteemed guests and generous benefactors gradually depart the pantry, employees, volunteers, and participants soon shift back into routine – stocking shelves, sorting items, filling carts. The work of the food pantry must continue, as long as there are hungry people in Eastern Kentucky. The gifts and support of donors, partners, and the community ensure that it has the resources to do so.