Sharing smiles and providing food

As a new employee of Neighborhood House, part of the onboarding experience for non-program staff is to job-shadow and work alongside colleagues in other program areas. We do this to get a full picture of what is happening within our programs and learn how we all work together to support those who come to us for help.

On this particular day, I was shadowing and working with our Food Support team. At the start of my shift, I received an overview of instructions from one of the full-time Food Intake Workers. I was ready to start handing out food and other necessities. The cars had begun to line up outside waiting for the Food Market to open while we prepared boxes of food for them inside. At 2 p.m., using a posted phone number, the waiting participants could begin to call in with their food requests and details. I was tasked with running food out to the people waiting in their cars and was amazed at the seamless process.

At the onset of Covid-19 in March 2020, Neighborhood House’s Food Market team restructured their operations overnight, going from a completely in-person shopping experience to a pre-packed box drive through method to protect our staff and participants. The process has since been very effective, but we hope to return soon to an in-person/hybrid model that lets participants hand-select their own food items.

While running food, I met Ada, who had walked up and waved me down from the sidewalk across the street. I walked over and I asked Ada if she needed help. She said, “Yes, but my English is not good. I’m not from here.” I nodded, saying that’s okay, ran back in to grab a clipboard, and worked with her carefully to get what she needed. Through the questioning process I discovered Ada was also in need of warm winter clothing, so I collected a few items left over from our winter gear distribution and offered her several options. She said she would take everything, as she had a daughter and son also in need of warm items like hats and gloves. I was moved. Ada said that she uses the Food Market often and appreciated the help.

Over the course of a year, Neighborhood House’s Food Market serves over 16,000 people with fresh, healthy and culturally appropriate food. Last year 816,508 pounds of food was distributed through our two food markets and Fresh Produce Pickups.

As things started to slow down a bit, we received a call from Marcel. He didn’t ask for anything extra, just what was included in the pre-packaged box (meat, eggs, dairy, vegetables, grains and other food staples). As I delivered the food, he had his truck backed up with the tailgate down and ready to go. I said to him, “Wow, thank you for being ready for me!” He said it was no big deal and began to tell me with a big smile about how much he appreciates the food we were giving him. I returned a smile and let him know we were happy to help.

Marcel then looked directly at me and asked me, “Is it okay that I gave you my previous address?” I looked at him, puzzled, and said I wasn’t sure what he meant. Still smiling, he gestured to the back of his truck and said, “I’m actually living in my truck right now. I lost my job and am living off from the food that I get from here. It’s just me, my truck and this little space heater here to keep me warm.”

I was shocked. I almost forgot the question he asked me. “Yes,” I said quickly, trying to contain my emotions and process what he had told me. “Yes, that is fine,” I said. He then went on to tell me he thought a recent job interview had gone well and had others lined up for next week and that things were looking up. He then

received a phone call. He said he had to go – “It might be another job calling” – and I wished him well and good luck as he left.

I left the conversation wishing I could have spoken with Marcel longer, but was thankful for the chance to meet and help him. The importance of the work we do at Neighborhood House and in the Food Markets became even more clear to me, whether it is supporting someone like Marcel who hopefully has a short-term need, or someone like Ada who uses the Food Market more often and long-term.

This year we are all seeing inflation and supply-chain issues that cause additional barriers for people to afford the food they so desperately need. Meal staples for our pre-packed boxes like meat, dairy, fresh produce and grains continue to be costly, scarce or unavailable. The rising costs of food have also created barriers for Neighborhood House. Items that used to be free or of low-cost for our Food Markets are more expensive than ever. From February 28 to April 10, Neighborhood House participates annually in Minnesota FoodShare’s statewide campaign, collecting monetary donations and in-kind food donations to support our Food Support program. Gifts made during Neighborhood House’s March Food Drive, will have increased impact as Minnesota FoodShare matches a portion of what we raise.

As we move through March Food Drive, and reflecting on my recent experience in the Food Market, I feel even more driven to share about the impactful work of Neighborhood House in the community and its mission to fight hunger in St. Paul. I am so proud and grateful that Neighborhood House incorporates hands-on program experience into the onboarding process for non-program staff. Volunteer work is something that is continuously encouraged at Neighborhood House for all staff. It is part of what makes us who we are and what drives us to do this work every day.

– Becki Lonnquist, Communications & Content Specialist at Neighborhood House