Two hundred and fifty brown paper bags neatly packed the stock room of the food pantry inside Shiloh Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) Church. Each one was filled with high quality groceries worth about $50. Today, the bounty included organic lacinto kale, fresh berry varieties, vine tomatoes, cabbage, white asparagus, brussel sprouts, cantelope, a pound of brown rice, canned kidney beans and spinach, heads of romaine lettuce and multigrain bread. Some even had a case of organic infant formula at the bottom of the bag for households with newborns.
Still, the work wasn't finished. Large crates of food stacked on top of one another required separation, and items needed to be packed into more individual bags.
Three busy church volunteers rarely looked up as they continued to cut long baguettes into smaller pieces. Three others organized the tomatoes and cabbages. Their hands swayed from side to side as their torsos barely moved. Like an elaborate orchestral dance, everyone was independently engaged in their tasks while simultaneously working together.
Bread crumbs and stray lettuce leaves grazed the floor. Soft radio music created a light murmur in the atmosphere. Besides the radio and the occasional hustle and bustle of boxes being shifted around, serenity conquered the room.
As New Yorkers, we take for granted that the faith groups are out and about binding up wounds. Even so, it is surprising to learn that the majority of emergency food providers to 1.4 million New Yorkers are faith-based food pantries like Shiloh.
Situated in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Shiloh's food pantry takes place on Eastern Parkway every Thursday morning from 10 o'clock to 11:30. Church volunteers organize about 300 satchels of food per week that feed about 300 households with 1000 people.
According to Pastor Warner Richards (who has moved to the Laurelton, Queens SDA church), the pantry has been running for at least 15 years. Sister Sarah Peterson’s tenure as volunteer director has overseen a skyrocketing of the pantry's popularity. In the last 5 years, Shiloh went from serving 250 hungry souls a week to 1,000.
That means each year the church provides about $780,000 worth of food to hungry people per year. In addition, Journey has identified eight other faith-based food pantries and kitchens in Crown Heights. Also, several faith-based efforts south of Eastern Parkway serve the residents north of the parkway.
“It has grown up and out,” said Peterson as she motioned upwards and outwards with her arms. The quality of the pantry’s food went up significantly just as the number of people needing food also shot upward,
“When I first started here, we gave mostly bread,” she recollected. Shiloh has not only quadrupled the number of people they're feeding, but now they offer fruits and vegetables, the organic and heirloom types.
In a unique collaboration of faith principles, the pantry adheres to specific dietary standards of Seventh-day Adventism, a religious denomination that originated from the Millerite movement in upstate New York in the 1840s. One will never see pork, butter cookies, or soda distributed by Shiloh. Instead, heirloom carrots, canned beans, and brown rice frequent the pantry's tables and hands of Shiloh's volunteer members.
Rising hunger in booming Crown Heights
New York is a city where food snobbery is rampant and locally produced food products are celebrated (Brooklyn honey anyone?). For many New Yorkers, the prosperous aspects of the city are the preferred symbols of the city.
But there is also a state of hunger that has grown on the land of the gentrifiers. Brooklyn and the Bronx lead the nation in the percentage of hungry folks in big cities. In 2013 27% of Brooklyn residents and 31% of Bronx residents received aid from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP replaced the food stamp program). Families that run through their monthly allotment of food benefits in three weeks, then turn to food pantries. The Federal government provides hungry children at least one meal a day through public school programs, but this effort leaves several gaps in food provision.
In 2013 a comprehensive study, the Food Bank of NYC found that about 1.4 million New Yorkers relied on emergency food programs. In other words, in a city with 8.4 million people, over 17% of the city's population struggle to find food on a weekly basis. The figure is a 40% increase from 2004, when approximately 1 million New Yorkers participated in emergency food programs.
Shiloh's food pantry is one of 742 emergency food providers within New York City's five boroughs, according to the Food Bank report entitled “Serving Under Stress Post-Recession: the state of food pantries and soup kitchens today.” Because of a shrinkage of resources, this is a 25% drop from the 989 available in 2007.
Hunger is not only a local issue, but a national issue. The 2008 economic crisis paired with lower Federal spending on social services to create an environment of national food insecurity. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately one in seven households in America were food insecure in 2010.
In the international issue is how many immigrants to the United States get caught between a drop in the job market here and the dependence on their remittances by their family back home. African immigrants, for example, are thought of as the “Big Men” who give pride and help to the people back home. If they go back, it is to disgrace and, maybe, ruin; and a return to the U.S. is hard legally. They are too proud to ask for help, so only culturally knowledgeable emergency food providers can figure out a way to help before the Africans (mainly men) end up on the street.
There is a positive dimension to the somber situation.
Hunger brings together the faith-based and secular groups
Religious and secular groups have teamed up to address food insecurity in the city. In a welcome pause in the culture wars, their antagonisms were put aside in favor of an idiom both understand: feeding the hungry.
The evangelical organization Here’s Life Inner City distributes hundreds of thousands of pounds of food through their church and ministry partners in the city. Notable secular organizations that help meet the food needs of vulnerable NYC communities include City Harvest and the Food Bank for New York City.
By acting as middle men, these nonprofit organizations collect perfectly edible leftovers from restaurants, corporate cafeterias, grocers, growers and manufacturers to distribute to food pantries, soup kitchens, and community centers throughout the city.
The faith based groups act as the main food outlets for both the religious and secular non-profit suppliers. More than two thirds of emergency food programs on the ground are faith-based and run predominately by a staff of committed volunteers.
In Shiloh, the number of volunteers ranges week to week. Sometimes only five people show up, other times there are twenty. On average, the volunteers dedicate about sixty hours per week cutting, organizing, bagging, and distributing food. Local groceries pay about $8 per hour for sacking groceries, so that means at a minimum the church volunteers are investing $480 per week of labor value into food services for the needy community members. That’s about $25,000 per year.
Shiloh’s boxes of produce and canned goods come from City Harvest, United Way, and the Food Bank for New York City. Food shipments arrive as early as Monday. Then, Tuesday and Wednesday are reserved for cutting and bagging. On Thursday the pantry is opened. On Friday, the last of the clean-up takes place. In other words, maintaining Shiloh's pantry is a week-long initiative that is primarily led by a volunteer Sister Peterson.
She's a strong woman with a no-nonsense attitude. Born into an Episcopalian family in Montserrat, an island in the Caribbean, Sister Peterson came to the U.S. in 1977 and became an Adventist in 1985. Lifting heavy crates and giving orders never seem to never tire her.
“Whoever comes, if they have time, they can participate. The time isn't theirs, the time belongs to God. If they have it, they need to give it back. If you can't abide by that, then don't volunteer,” she declared. She runs a tight ship.
With all the fruits and vegetables, Shiloh's pantry looked more like a warehouse operated by Fresh Direct rather than a church donation center. Considering its location on Eastern Parkway, the large storage and kitchen space would probably rent out for about $220,000 per year. In total the church food bank is providing over $1 million a year in social welfare to Crown Heights.
The tomatoes and cantaloupes may have dents here and there, but the products in Shiloh's pantry during our surprise visits were of exceptional quality. It was like going grocery shopping in an upscale Manhattan supermarket. The overall healthy harvest made Shiloh a tremendous resource for the needy in the Crown Heights community, which is considered by experts as a food desert.
One of the reasons why Shiloh's pantry is filled with natural products is because of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) health beliefs. While the food in the pantry comes from multiple donors, Pastor Richards and Sister Peterson make sure it doesn't contain pork or items with caffeine, which would go against their dietary convictions. Adventists abide by health laws declared in Leviticus 11, which restrict shellfish from the diet, and advocate the vegetarian lifestyle and unprocessed foods. “While we cannot impose on anyone our lifestyle, we've always been able to balance it out,” said Pastor Richards.
The do's and don't in the dietary laws that pervade SDA beliefs is what Daniel Sack, a historian of American religion and author of Whitebread Protestants, calls “moral food.” Moral food is sustenance that “not just shapes your taste buds, but also shapes your relationship to God and other people. It transcends diet and health.” Health is a side affect of the spiritual discipline of consuming moral food.
Seventh Day Adventists are not the only religious groups that consume moral food. Muslims have proper animal slaughtering techniques called halal; Jews feast on kosher products; and Buddhists and Hindus promote vegetarianism.
In the case with Shiloh's pantry, it's not just a moral dietary code that's being addressed, but also a state of calamity. Prayers of thanksgiving for the food and the needy comes readily to the mouths of the servers.
In the last minutes before the pantry opened its doors, the volunteers formed a circle in the middle of the stockroom. Amidst a sea of boxes, bags, and bread crumbs, they closed their eyes and a prayer was led by Nadine Clarke, a 33 year old elementary school teacher and church member who has been volunteering with the pantry for 8 years. The dignified moment gave an opportunity for reflection and gratitude. In a calm manner, they blessed each other, the food, and the people that awaited them beyond the stockroom.
Outside, a different scene took place among the people waiting for the food pantry to open. Eager to get the very best produce to take home to their families, early birds arrive an hour before opening.
Hungry stomachs were creating chaos and loud chattering. Finally, the line of people split into two competing lines, with one line extended around the corner of the block.
By now, the hundreds of people, some with shopping carts, were turning restless standing under the morning sun waiting for free groceries. Caribbeans, Blacks, Chinese, and Mexicans stood back to back and shoulder to shoulder.
A 32 year old Haitian woman, who wished to remain anonymous, said “Look at this line, it's like a Puff Daddy concert. People are lining up.”
Many participants were not aware of the impact the church's beliefs have on the food pantry, but they appreciated the health conscious choices. “They always give vegetables. When you eat well, you feel well and handle people better. It's nice to know that they care,” observed the Haitian woman.
Latecomers were still arriving five minutes before closing time. While no one is ever turned away, latecomers received boxes of praline crackers instead of fresh berries, and generic pineapple juice instead of multigrain bread. Coming early definitely had its perks.
Once the clock passed 11:30 am, the people remaining on linewere brought inside the stock room and the doors of the pantry were closed. Curtis Redhead, an 84 year old volunteer and church deacon originally from Trinidad, said, “If you don't close, then the line will continue on and on.”
After waiting in one line, people were already irritated, and having to reform another line inside brought an argument between two people. Deacon Redhead stepped in and said in a righteous voice, “Calm down, this is a church!” For a second, the individuals froze realizing that they were in fact on holy ground.
The disagreement dissipated.
It was a symbolic moment that displayed both desperation and veracity. In the line of hopeful faces, there was the anger and sadness of some of the poor as they bickered and waited for a meal. In that stock room they were also in the church, and the food pantry is a ministry within the church. Everything that a church stands for was in that stockroom: hope, salvation, serenity and love. Intertwining the fears and hopes were satchels of food that transferred from church hands to the needy.
As the last in the line received their share, the volunteers collectively let out sighs. Now, it was time to clean-up, but not without opening up cans of pineapple juice and taking a breather.