“I heard you need volunteers. I’m here.”
The man standing at the door of the food pantry room on that gorgeous afternoon in April was short, probably weighed less than 125 pounds, and had a deep voice. Guy looked to be a little younger than me so that put him in his 60’s. Since I’m terrible at guessing ages, I had no idea whether he was about 61 or about 69. I only knew he was too young to be 70..
I had no idea, no premonition, about Guy Oddo being important in the pantry. I completely overlooked the vibe of this momentous event. I always did that. And then, later, I would remember the moment and comment to myself about how, I was never, ever aware of its importance. And, setting eyes on Guy was no exception.
Guy Oddo was destined to become the food pantry hallway czar.
And, it’s just as well. If I’d been aware of what was happening at that moment, I would’ve gotten all excited and jittery and he would have wandered off thinking to himself that he didn’t want to get mixed up with pantry volunteers where a ditzy old cotton top woman hung out.
“Thanks for coming in! Can you greet the shoppers in the hallway today?” As I said this, I took the sign in sheet off a shelf in the pantry room and handed it to him. Since the beginning of my time in the pantry, no one had been specifically assigned to this task. I just handed over the sign in sheet to anybody who would accept it and asked them to sign in the shoppers. If no one was available, I did it myself while I distributed the groceries.
My thought at that moment was that if this man, Guy, who just walked in the door, would hand around awhile, I could, maybe, hopefully, put him in charge of the list. I had handed this list to many would be volunteers over the months. So far, none of them was interested. This list was, incidentally, the single most important piece of paper in the pantry.
People signed their names when they shopped in the pantry. So the list counted the people. Shoppers also shared the members in their household. We always asked “How many children, adults, and seniors are in your household.”
Then, at the end of the month, I added up the totals and sent them off to the Hunger Prevention Nutrition Assistance Program (HPNAP). These totals were important. They pantry got food every month based on them.
Up to this moment, our list was more a lick and a promise than anything else. With no one person in charge of it, I felt we were losing names which meant we were losing food. More shoppers translated to more food.
As the afternoon wore on and Guy and I worked together, something about his voice convinced me he was going to be around more than a day or even a week, that he wanted a list to take care of.
As it turned out, he wanted not only the list but also the hungry shoppers located all over the place in the overcrowded church parking lot as they waited to get in the basement hallway and then to get in the pantry. The whopper population was made up of hungry people who, for the most part, had been on a spiritual path which ended outside the door of the pantry.
Misfortune was common in the hunger community. Some shoppers seemed to be beaten down by it. The thing I learned from seeing misfortune in action was that it can happen to anyone. The important thing was how they dealt with it. Some overcame misfortune while others were themselves overcome and lost their voices entirely.
“Hi. C’mon in. Sign in. I’ll call you as soon as your number comes up.” Guy greeted the shoppers.
Over time, Guy became the first to first to arrive and the last to leave on pantry day. He was combination greeter, concierge, information desk, hallway policeman, expediter, and director of personnel. And, just because…As I walked into the pantry room to distribute food, I handed him my cell phone. He took calls throughout the afternoon from troubled or inquiring shoppers.
Last, but certainly not least, he made me feel safe.
I never told anyone, but I had several experiences in the pantry and in the community that put fear on the front burner of my life. I knew, as a healer, that evil surrounded my presence in the pantry. Feeding hungry people without strings was not an acceptable philosophy for many people.
I came down on the side of feeding hungry people according to guidelines set down by the Hunger Prevention Nutrition Acceptance Program (HPNAP). Many in town definitely differed.
The bottom line was that I feared that the building committee of the church would shut the pantry down. For me, that would be a catastrophe because the hungry people simply had no place else to go for food.
So, there I was feeding hungry people in a small town food pantry in the basement of a church. Each week the line was longer than the week before. The wait to get in the pantry room to shop for two or three minutes was often an hour – in the broiling heat, the freezing cold, or a flooding rain.
AN OLDER MAN
He shopped in the pantry weekly and never uttered a word. His only message was embroidered on his baseball cap: Korean War Veteran.
This man who fought as a soldier in the brutal Korean conflict in the early 1950’s was now, as an old man, reduced to standing in a line for food.
A FATHER TO BE
“I live in my car. My wife is pregnant. We’ve got her in a woman’s shelter. I’m working two jobs to get the money together for the baby.”
A FAMILY MOVING ON
“We’re really stressed out today. I don’t know where we’re going to go. We got evicted because I don’t have the money to pay the weekly camping fee. The woman next to us in the campground is almost as broke as we are but she gave me $5.00 for gas because we have to leave.”
The pantry had a refrigerator and I needed a place to put it. But, to begin at the beginning, the food pantry had hungry people wanting and needing the hundreds of dozens of eggs we got from the food bank and Aldi’s.
Pantry volunteers needed a place to store the eggs before we distributed them. Where, oh where, could I put the refrigerator?
Early on pantry day, when I packed eggs in my car, nothing much else fit. Reusable shopping bags filled with eggs were in the rear hatch, on the seats, and on the floor. I felt like I was driving an egg mobile instead of a Prius. The only negative was refrigeration.
Each new food group added to the pantry shelves changed the dynamic, the pace of shopping in the room. Eggs were a huge addition. They were cheap. They didn’t take up much space but packed a nutritional punch. They were easy to cook. They were in big demand every time they were available in the pantry.
At the Food Bank of Northeastern New York in Latham I bought thirteen cases of loose eggs at a time whenever I could get them. When food bank stock was depleted, I bought over a hundred dozen eggs at a time at Aldi, a food store located at 767 East Chester Street in Kingston, across the road from Prestige Toyota. Aldi was the only local store willing to sell eggs to the pantry.
I tried to buy eggs at local farms and at Adams Fairacre, ShopRite, and Hannaford’s in Kingston. Nobody would sell eggs to the pantry because over a hundred dozen eggs were just too many and the pantry need wasn’t steady enough.
Aldi didn’t mind though. The store manager kept hundreds of dozens of eggs behind the glass door of a refrigerator case on the back wall of the store. All I had to do was open the door, wheel out the egg trolley, and load all the eggs I needed in large, reusable shopping bags which I brought with me. It took four shopping carts to get the loaded eggs to the checkout clerk.
I spent several months quietly searching for the refrigerator space I needed. I had a refrigerator and I just needed a place to put it. Then I got serious. I began with the church.
“Pastor, the pantry needs a refrigerator for eggs.”
“The pantry room is too small and the building committee won’t allow it.”
Next, I called around Woodstock from a list I’d made of people who might be willing to help me out. After the pastor, the Town Supervisor was top of the list. I was on his election committee when he successfully ran for office.
“Hi. I’m looking for refrigerator space for the pantry. Can I put one in the Community Center kitchen? I’ll donate it to the town. I just want to use it one day each week for eggs.”
“Thanks.” Well, I thought, it’s a good thing I made a list!
I knew Woodstock Democratic Committee members. One was even on the Woodstock Town Board.
“I’m looking for refrigerator space for the pantry. I’ve got the refrigerator, I just want to use it one day a week for eggs. Do you know someplace in town where we can put one?”
“I’ll ask around and see what I can find.”
“How about Town Hall? There’s a large empty room there.”
“That won’t work. We’re going to renovate that building.”
My list is getting me nowhere fast, I thought.
At the end of the church parking lot stood a long, dirt floored, unpainted, rattlety trap building, a storage space for the popular Woodstock Village Green Bed and Breakfast. If I could get a corner in that old barn, I could put a refrigerator on a pallet. Dare I hope? I didn’t know the owners personally, but there didn’t seem to be any other options. So, I picked up the phone and called.
“I’m wondering if the pantry can rent a little corner of your barn for a refrigerator. I’m desperate for a place to store eggs. I’ve asked everyone and you are my absolute last hope.”
I might be able to pull this one off, I thought. When the pantry inspectors come, I just won’t mention the barn. I had to rely on food bank inspectors looking the other way and not asking about the food bank eggs.
One of the owners called back. “We can do this and there won’t be any charge.”
“Thanks. You’re going to heaven for this.”
“The refrigerator in the barn worked fine. Volunteers distributed eggs to shoppers on pantry day. Over time, local residents donated refrigerators and freezers.
Shopper census rose until we outgrew our small storage closet in the hallway.
“I need space Pastor. If you can’t spare a room for the pantry, I’ll just have to ask volunteers to bring the next shipment to my home where I’ll put it in my healing space. This is our biggest shipment yet, 3,000 pounds. The food is coming in.”
Each monthly shipment from the food bank up to this point had totaled less than 2,000 pounds. Pastor appealed to his consistory and the building committee. Word on the street was that many meetings followed and the pantry finally got, somehow, permission, maybe, to use the room at the end of the hall.
Food delivery day arrived and volunteers put food in the room. As they brought boxes into the room, I looked around. Nobody was there at the moment. The universe is on my side, I thought.
I hurried upstairs to the church office where I found the secretary. “We’re so happy to be able to store food in the room. Do you think it’ll be okay to bring a refrigerator in? This would mean we can keep eggs in the storeroom.”
Slowly, she smiled. “Sure, bring it in.”
Within minutes after I spoke with her, two men carried a refrigerator to the store room. “Put it against this wall,” I said, pointing to the one place where it would be least obvious.
At the end of the morning, building committee members inspecting the new storeroom saw a room full of food and a refrigerator filled with eggs. They were not happy.
I thought the pastor’s secretary was the number two person in the church so I went with her okay. The expressions on their faces taught me that the only people with any authority in that church were the building committee members.
From that morning on, pantry volunteers filled the stockroom to capacity with the food we got from the food bank. The refrigerator hummed along as we stacked eggs on every shelf in it weekly.
I don’t think I got permission to use the room permanently. It was a squatter’s rights kind of thing. Once I got the food in there, they couldn’t get me out. Before it was all over, the pantry received shipments every month exceeding 12,000 pounds.
The storeroom was a wonderful addition to the pantry. We routinely ordered food for advance needs during lean months and the refrigerator stored eggs.
The storeroom made all the difference.
Same with the barn. The dirt (mud when it rained) floor was permanently covered with flattened cardboard boxes and the refrigerators and freezers were stacked on pallets.
Was I wrong to have been so pushy?
Well, I don’t think so. I did make one mistake, though. I should have moved all the refrigerators and freezers into the storeroom that morning.
There were enough outlets.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for reading this article. Please share it with your favorite social media network.
Woodstock, New York
P.S. Please stay tuned for future chapters from my upcoming book “The Ketchup Sandwich Chronicles”.