Volunteer Bound: Food Pantry at St. James Episcopal Church of Salt Lake City

The Experience

When we arrived at St. James Episcopal Church on Sunday afternoon, it had just started snowing and there were families arriving to visit the food pantry. As soon as we entered, we were directed down a hallway where there were already 10 families waiting to enter and receive their food.

St James Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City

St James Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City

Each family is asked to sign a registration sheet so the food pantry can keep track of how many people they’re helping. I was amazed by the diversity of the families and learned that the pantry serve immigrants from Nepal, Iraq, Burma, Sudan, Somalia and several other countries.  I saw a family of four from Nepal and learned that they had only been in the U.S. for a couple of weeks. The whole family relied on the translation skills of their young daughter who looked to be about 10 years old. I was trying to imagine what it’s like to come to a foreign country with unfamiliar customs and to realize that you can’t provide for your family. On top of that, you rely on your daughter not only to find food, but also to navigate complicated legal and residential matters. I wondered what their previous situation must have been and whether their new life is living up to their expectations.

Registration for food pantry services

Registration for food pantry services

Families in line at the St. James' Food Pantry

Families in line at the St. James’ Food Pantry

After visiting the registration desk, I made my way down a short hallway to the food pantry itself. At first I was overwhelmed by the number of people in the small room and as I was having trouble making sense of what I was seeing.  For a split second I felt frustrated that I couldn’t tell the volunteers from the patrons and then I realized how great that was! The volunteers mingled with the families and talked with them as they shopped, carrying the extra bags and boxes to make sure the families got everything they needed.

The most incredible thing about this pantry was that the families could choose – not just one item from each shelf and not just between chicken or turkey. They could have as much as they needed and could pick anything they wanted from the entire pantry. This is something that most of us take for granted. When you go to the grocery store, you get to decide what you want and how much. When you’re relying on others, it’s common to experience the “beggars can’t be choosers” mindset. The people giving often adopt the attitude that the recipients should just be grateful that they’re getting anything at all. To a point that makes sense. It’s better to have something than nothing. But it’s even better to have some control over what you’ll be eating.

Imagine that you’re already having a tough time – maybe you’ve lost your job or you’ve been in the hospital and can’t provide for your family. You have to swallow your pride and go ask strangers for help to feed your children. You trek to the food pantry, wait in line and receive a box for the week that contains hot dogs and peanut butter. You’re supposed to be on a low sodium diet, so hot dogs should be out of the question. Your daughter is allergic to peanuts, so the peanut butter becomes more of a hazard than a help. Now where do you turn for help?

Now instead imagine that you come to St. James’ Food Pantry for the first time, where a smiling face greets you, hands you a box and says “you’re welcome to take anything you need.” I can only imagine the mix of emotions. First I’d feel doubtful. Then I’d feel grateful. Relieved and humbled. Empowered. What an incredible gift. You’re not just giving food. You’re giving control and more importantly, you’re telling someone that they’re trustworthy.

One man came through took half of the baby food they had. How would that make you feel? What would you think of him? Would you label him selfish or greedy? It’s easy to get defensive and to feel the need to ration food for others, but you’d still be denying someone in need of food. You never know what someone is going through. In this case, we learned that he had triplets at home. Does that change your opinion of his behavior?

The food bank is overseen by an interesting a surprising woman named Nazanin Nourmohammadi. She glows when she describes how the food pantry has grown from its humble beginnings. In her beautiful Persian accent, she explains that the pantry started out with boxes on the floor in a small storage room, but now they have moved into a larger room with shelving. A new and significant addition of refrigerators allows them to provide a wider range of goods including fresh produce. This acquisition has been one of the big moments in the food pantry’s history which explains why Nazanin hugs them periodically. She explains that the pantry is now so well-staffed that she no longer needs to worry about having enough help to feed the families. “I could just go home and it would run, but I love to be here. There are few greater joys” she told me.

Rick and Nazanin

Rick and Nazanin

Rebekah and I had the opportunity to meet families, stock supplies and talk with several other volunteers while we were there.

Sarah and Rebekah stocking food

Sarah and Rebekah stocking food

John Bradley said that food was scarce when he was young, so he can relate to the families at the food bank, which is why he and has wife have been volunteering with food related charities for the last 20 years. We also met brothers Jake and Rex who started a company called Karma Incarnate, which aims to end hungry through a profit sharing system. They’re focused on hunger because “It’s a problem that doesn’t end. It comes back every month.”

Jake and Rex

Jake and Rex

Even though they’re only open two days a month, the food pantry sees a lot of families. Some months there are more than 400 served out of this tiny pantry. Nazanin speaks with pride about her adopted country. “People here are so willing to help one another. That’s what makes America the richest country in the world.”

How to Help

St. James Church food bank is open on the second and fourth Sundays of each month from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. Volunteers help to stock, organize, maintain, and distribute food.

For more information please call (801) 566-1311

Volunteer Bound

Please support our grass-roots volunteerism project! We’ll be traveling the country to highlight non-profits and inspire volunteerism coast to coast. If you like our work, please consider donating to our efforts!

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