Hunger Is Not a Disease

The Inquisition – Food Pantry Meetings in Upstate New York

“We came closer to understanding the crazy circus logic of the witch-hunt that began.” – Kathy Bates
What a year! 2011 began with Gabrielle Giffords being shot in the head. Gaddafi was killed. Hosni Mubarak was forced from power. Osama Bin Ladin was killed. Hurricane Irene left destruction still not repaired. Our country entered its 10th year in Afghanistan, and unemployment hit 9%.
Meanwhile, in Woodstock, I remember 2011 as the year the building committee
Tried, really tried to get rid of me
Tried, really tried to return to the pre-2008 glory days of 25 shoppers a week
Tried, really tried to get rid of the cardboard
Tried, really tried to get rid of the fresh produce
Tried, really tried to reduce the pantry footprint by reducing the hours available to the volunteers
Tried, really tried to reduce the pantry footprint by reducing the number of volunteers permitted in the pantry at any given time
Tried, really tried to restrict the shoppers’ and volunteers’ access to the parking lot
Tried, really tried to get control of the money that was coming in to the pantry from donations.
They hosted several Inquisitions in July, August, and September to address their displeasure with everything they could think of, item by item. These meetings were attended by Ed Jabbs, Stewart DeWitt, and Barbara Moorman from the building committee. Pastor Bode attended the meetings also. Hatti Iles, Ann King, Mike Lourenso, Marilou Paturel, Karen White, and Jim Dougherty represented the community. I was only allowed to attend because, as the coordinator, I knew a lot about things that were going on which absolutely no one else knew. For starters, I knew the HPNAP rules and the Food Bank guidelines.
We all crowded around a large table in the corner room adjacent to the storeroom. Ed Jabbs sat at the head of the table with the posture of judge and jury. During the meetings he did all the talking for the building committee.
Barbara Moorman and Stewart DeWitt, building committee members, never uttered a sound unless he asked one of them a question. Two building committee members did not attend these meetings: Roger Shultis and Mike Cooter. Too bad for them because these two guys really couldn’t stand Thurman Greco and They would have love, love, loved to have been there. I never quite figured out why they weren’t included.
Certainly Roger Shultis knew a lot about the pantry activities. He spent pantry days in the hall watching everything with a scowl on his face.
Hatti Iles was the spokesperson for the community. Hatti is a local artist, very talented and well known. She practices martial arts, teaching Tai Chi in town. Hatti was very grounded when the situation got aggressive.
Thurman Greco was identified in all cases by Ed Jabbs as the main culprit in all complaints.
Huge on the agenda at the first inquisition in July was rot and vermin mitigation. They didn’t want produce because it brought bugs, rot, vermin, and cardboard. We had long discussions in which the building committee members discussed their opinions that all the produce coming into the pantry from whatever source was rotten.
Our response was that the produce came from the Food Bank in pristine condition and would not rot if kept cool. Which brought up yet again the problem that we needed more refrigerators which were never going to be admitted in the building: never, never, never. The fact that the Meals on Wheels kitchen across the hall from our pantry had several refrigerators and freezers was not even considered.
The pantry was not, ever, going to get more appliances.
The unspoken words: “We don’t want the pantry feeding this kind of food to these people. The unworthy hungry should go to Kingston. We’re going to do everything possible to stop the escalation of the shopper census. We’re going to do everything possible to reduce the pantry to the point where it’s serving 25 people per week again. You have ruined our pantry.”
The fact that there were no bugs or mice in the food was of no consequence. The presence of produce and cardboard invited these vermin and no argument was able to overcome their stand. Facts had no weight in this inquisition. They just didn’t want me in the pantry at all.
The building committee insisted that we store the produce in plastic bins with tight fitting lids. They demanded that the food be removed from the building on Thursday at the end of the pantry week.
Removing the food on Thursday at the end of the pantry week was certainly fine with me. We were taking the leftover produce to Family and then to the Woodstock Farm Animal Shelter.
Storing the produce in plastic bins with tight fitting lids was not. When produce is stored in airtight plastic bins, it can’t breathe. This speeds up the rotting process. However, I had to do this if I wanted the pantry to remain open.
To make their point, a church member went to Target and bought four of the largest plastic bins he would find to the tune of $150. These bins appeared in the pantry storeroom complete with the receipt for reimbursement. These bins were so large that, when filled with produce, they couldn’t be lifted by the volunteers.
The building committee digressed from the vermin/cardboard issue at the first meeting to establish that the pantry was renting the space by the hour and the value of the space is $20 per hour. We were paying a nominal sum for the rent: $1000 per year. The issue was that everyone needed to be clear that we weren’t paying our “freight”, as my grandmother in Texas would have said. Nothing was ever mentioned about the fact that, for years, the pantry had paid nothing for the space. I had begun to pay the church for the space because I felt the pantry needed to offer money to cover costs such as painting the walls, cleaning the bathrooms.
Offering the church money for the space was a seriously bad idea. We ended up cleaning the bathrooms ourselves and paying to paint the walls. The building committee resented the money because of the amount given.
The August inquisition moved right along to insurance issues, fire codes, inspections from the Food Bank, restriction of volunteer access to the building, pantry volunteers trying to identify who was breaking in the pantry and stealing food.
“We spoke with our insurance agent and you need liability insurance with the church co-named. We need a policy in our hands by Monday.”
“This is Thursday afternoon. It’s 4:00 and our meeting isn’t even over yet. How can we do this by Monday?”
“Well, you better do it or your pantry is out of the building. I realize this is problematic for you but we spoke with our insurance agent and this is what we need.”
“We need a fire inspection of the building. We want to make sure your volunteers aren’t breaking any rules in the pantry. Your tables, chairs, and all those people in the hallway are a fire hazard. All those cans and boxes and all that produce might be a fire hazard.”
“There are far too many chairs in the hallway. We don’t want more than three or four chairs in the hallway. Right now you have the hallway lined with chairs for the shoppers. This is a safety hazard.”
We want to know when anyone is in the building. Anytime a Food Bank person is in the pantry, we need to know about it. We want to see copies of all of your inspection reports.”
“I’ll be happy to show you the inspection reports except that I’m not permitted to. The Food Bank considers that information to be confidential. Actually, I’m very proud of those reports. I get the highest score possible on all the inspections.” I used this moment to proudly describe the details of every inspection we’d had, including the surprise visit from the USDA. I was then, and still am, very proud of how our inspections went. I always got top grades.
“We saw a police car outside the pantry yesterday. It wasn’t even pantry hours. What’re you doing?” Jabbs’ voice was raised.
“We’re trying to find out who’s been stealing food from the pantry and the storeroom while the pantry is closed.”
“How dare you call the police! You have no authority to call the police! This building is ours! We decide who calls the police!”
“Well, we have to find out who’s been stealing food. Someone is coming into the pantry and stealing food.”
“No you don’t! If we see a police car here again, you’re outta here!”
For months I had noticed food disappearing from the pantry when it was closed. I tracked the disappearances. Most of the time someone was coming in and getting a can or jar or two. Then, things escalated a bit. One Tuesday, I came in the pantry to find nine cans of green beans missing. Another time I came in to find several jars of peanut butter missing. The culprit had a sense of humor. An empty jar of peanut butter was left as a calling card.
The final issue was the restriction of hours and volunteers. We were told to have fewer volunteers during pantry hours and to be in the pantry only during certain times on specific days.
We never brought up the subject of the food thefts again. We felt if we did that the pantry would be shut down because the only way a person could get into the building, then into the pantry, and remove food repeatedly without damaging the doors, and locks, was by having a key. That made the thefts an inside job. The building committee members all had keys to the pantry rooms.
Our accusations were too close for comfort.
The agreement that resulted from these meetings brought many changes:
Tuesdays we were allowed in the building from 9:00 a.m. until noon to stock shelves.
Tuesday afternoons were available to selected volunteers to prepare take out bags.
On Wednesday mornings, we could bring in produce from 11:30 to 12:30. We then had to vacate the building until 3:00 p.m. when we could reenter to operate the pantry until 7:00.
Thursdays we were in the building from 2:00 p.m. until the pantry closed at 5:00. We were required to be out of both the building and the parking lot by 6:30 p.m.
On Fridays I was allowed to bring in a small shipment of canned/boxed goods at some point between 4:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. for no more than thirty minutes. I was not allowed to put any products on the shelves.
No food was allowed to be distributed from the hallway on pantry days.
No more than three chairs were allowed in the hallway.
Our shoppers were not allowed to use the handicap restroom.
On one was allowed to lean on or touch the walls.
No one was allowed to sit on or go up or down the foyer stairs. No one was allowed in the foyer at all except to walk through to the hallway.
Nothing was allowed in the entrance foyer or on the stairs.
We had permission to use the length of the hallway. We weren’t allowed to use the hallway from the point it turned toward the remainder of the church.
Church member volunteers were in the building when we were allowed to operate the pantry. They watched activities making sure we didn’t break rules. Some watchers were discreet. Others were obvious, in our faces. One walked up and down the hall, the parking lot and the entrance yard taking photographs and continually talking on the phone to others relaying all of the things we were doing. I was always protective of the shoppers where photographs were concerned but when this happened, I simply did nothing. The situation was too confrontational.
Anyone using the church bathroom (not the handicap bathroom) was to be supervised by a pantry volunteer.
Any pantry inspections required prior notification to the building committee.
The building committee wanted copies of all our paperwork. The building committee wanted to know about every grant received.
I was allowed to store records in the storeroom but not allowed to have an office or perform any administrative functions.
It was good the meetings ended when they did because in July I was a totally upset sweet little old lady trying very hard to do what the Food Bank and the HPNAP people wanted. By September I was eating nails. My attitude was that I would continue to do what the Food Bank and HPNAP wanted and would not provoke the building committee. I followed their rules and promised myself that when “the fat lady sings”, so would I.
I had returned to my Texas roots. My motto was this: “I don’t start the fight but I’ll damn sure finish it.” My family came from very tough stock. We were some of the first settlers in America and then in Texas. My Grandmother was a Deputy Sheriff in Edwards County, Texas, and my father was an attorney who used the word “ethical” everytime he used the word “legal”.
I emerged from the Inquisitions with a mission statement: to inform people about hunger in America by writing about food pantries in articles, a blog, and books. I would produce a TV show on public access TV and put the material on You Tube.
2011 was the pivotal year.
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Peace and food for all.
Thurman Greco