Food Pantries Where Caring, Dignity and Respect Are Always on the Menu

Food Pantries Where Caring, Dignity and Respect Are Always on the Menu

In Vermont, one out of four people go hungry. The Vermont Foodbank aims to change that – and to help clients heal from adversity as well. Its website is populated with the voices of people who’ve benefited.

In Wells, Vermont, a middle-aged woman with young children lives with her parents next door to her own family. Her mother is frail and her father has Alzheimer’s, and they both need her care around the clock. Her parents worked hard all their lives, she said, but they are unable to pay for caregivers or nutritious food on their small fixed income.

“We’ve often had to choose between buying food and medicine,” she said, “and sometimes my husband and I skip meals altogether so my parents can eat.”

Finding a food bank in town was an enormous relief. Not only did she and her husband not have to worry where the next meal was coming from, she said, the pantry provided social and emotional support. “Many of the volunteers there help because they’ve been where I am: struggling to get by,” she said. “They understand where I’m coming from, and they care.”

The Vermont Foodbank, which annually serves 153,000 people people struggling with hunger, is part of a food bank movement toward trauma-informed care — treatment that takes into account past trauma and its impact on how people cope with stress. Families and individuals who need food are treated with respect and dignity they deserve – something that is not always the case in social service agencies.

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) from abuse to divorce have undermined the prospects of many food bank clients, according to Chris Meehan, chief community impact officer for Vermont Foodbank. His organization wants to change the way food banks think and talk about poverty.

“We’re trying to focus on the root of some of this; there’s a huge amount of work that’s been happening in our field,” Meehan told reporters. “You can employ some different practices that move you towards becoming a healing organization.” Recently the Vermont Foodbank hosted a conference on trauma-informed care for 300-plus food bank employees throughout the state.

In nearby rural Massachusetts, Robin Bialecki runs the Easthampton Community Center’s food pantry and kitchen, which is involved in the state’s “Food is Medicine” initiative. On a hot Saturday in July, she’s helping oversee a lively operation in which teen and adult volunteers talk animatedly as they convert leftover plastic feed bags and irrigation hose into colorful reusable shopping bags for food pantry clients – part of the statewide Bagshare Project. Laughter drifts across the room as volunteers admire a bag featuring a giant chicken, which appears to fix them with a gimlet eye.

Scores of people visit the food pantry to pick up bread and baskets of groceries, but Bialecki starts her day at 5:00 every morning to deliver bags of food to shut-ins, families without transportation and a handful of individuals too proud to show up at the pantry. “They don’t want anyone to know they are hungry,” she said. “It’s important to meet people where they are.”

Glancing at reviews of local food pantries suggests this approach is working. One Yelp review of the Berkshire Food Project noted that its employees served community meals “with respect, dignity and a smile,” adding that the food was always delicious. A couple posted that they “were very grateful [we] only had to use when we needed it; we don’t take from others if we have at least some veggies or soup or even bread to eat.” The Food Project’s owner, who urged clients to view the dining room as a sanctuary where everyone was welcome, wrote back: “Please join us ANY time! We can always help you supplement what you do have!”

In another response, she summed up food banks’ trauma-informed approach: “Good food, caring people, dignity and respect are always on the menu.”