Matthew Wexler, a chef at Good Commons in Vermont, hits the streets of New York City and beyond to discover the places and people that make him feel Good. This is the first in a four-part “Do Good” series about interesting volunteer opportunities throughout the outer boroughs.
What: Adopt a Food Program
Where: Soup kitchens and food pantries throughout the five boroughs
When: 6-month commitment during 2010
Why: To help the approximately 1.3 million New Yorkers who rely on emergency food. To the average passer-by, there is nothing unique about the door at 2241 Church Avenue in Flatbush—except for the 50 people lined up outside of it on this cold December morning. They represent an alarming number of city residents having difficulty affording food. The 2nd floor food pantry, operated by CAMBA, sees upwards of 2,400 visitors a month. I have arrived to bag a few groceries and find out more about CAMBA’s participation in the newly launched Adopt a Food Program.
Part of Mayor Bloomberg’s New York Service initiative, CAMBA is one of a hundred or so food pantries citywide participating in the Adopt a Food Program, which is being coordinated in cooperation with the Food Bank For New York City. “It’s great that we have so much response during the holiday season,” shares CAMBA’s Director of Homelessness Prevention Programs/Legal Services Janet Miller, “but it’s really the rest of the year that has such a strong demand.”
I’m quickly thrown into the hustle of the morning’s activities by Anne Christian, project coordinator for the food pantry. She is refreshingly optimistic, given the marked increase in people accessing emergency food and the visibly limited resources. Her small but dedicated team includes Young Adult Borough Center (YABC) interns, a social service graduate student, and a handful of volunteers. Together they are a true melting pot, exemplifying an area that was once home to Barbra Streisand and the Brooklyn Dodgers and is now primarily African and East Indian.
The YABC interns stock the shelves with grits, dry cereal, shelf-stable milk, and a limited assortment of canned vegetables. The refrigerators sit mostly empty except for a few dozen eggs and some carrots and collard greens that have seen better days. Clients can only access the pantry once a month and these items, regardless of their condition, are priceless. CAMBA’s pantry operates as a client-choice model, allowing participants to choose products from the shelf as if they were in a grocery store. Not only is it more dignified, but it is also more effective. Clients receive foods that they actually want to eat, cutting down on waste. And with such a high demand, every can counts.
I am assigned as a bagger and quickly discover that working the line isn’t as easy as it may appear. Cans roll of the counter. A bag splits with the weight of too many items. I inadvertently crush a box of cereal. It’s humbling. . . because I know these minor missteps are with goods worth their weight in gold to the people standing before me. And yet nobody grumbles or complains. They do not ask for the manager or throw a tantrum as I have been known to do at my worst retail moments. Their appreciation transcends my fumblings and I receive “thank you’s” in an array of global accents.
As the day wraps up, I ask Anne why people should consider the Adopt a Food Program. “When you’re helping to provide people with nutritious food, it makes them happy. They realize that somebody cares, and that’s a great feeling.”
(CAMBA, 1720 Church Avenue, Brooklyn, NY, 718.287.2600)
Matthew Wexler is a freelance writer and chef. His online musings can be found at his blog, Roo de Loo. To sample his cuisine, take a visit to Good Commons.