Aid With A Side of Dignity

Clients’ choice of items is a key ingredient at N. Phila. food pantry.

By Alfred Lubrano
Inquirer Staff

Raymond Antrol eyed the canned goods at the newly opened Community Food Center in Fairhill with amused wonder.

“So many choices,” muttered the laid-off duct cleaner, who’s been living a tough life in that hard-time community in North Philadelphia, west of Kensington.

Accustomed to food pantries where the staff boxes up and distributes whatever provisions are available, Antrol, 57, was slightly thrown by the freedom to pick whatever he wanted, as though shopping.

“It’s pretty neat, man,” he said. “It’s a better feeling – more dignity.”

Dignity is a primary commodity at the food center, the only so-called choice food pantry in the Philadelphia region. Another is planned in the near future for one of three possible locations: Chester, Coatesville, or South Philadelphia.

“For an impoverished population with little choice in life, any choice has huge empowering aspects,” said Bill Clark, executive director of Philabundance, which runs the center. Philabundance is the largest hunger-relief agency in the region.

After a “soft” opening during the holidays, the center is now up and running from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday, serving 500 preregistered North Philadelphia families about 20,000 pounds of perishable and nonperishable food each week, according to Philabundance. The largest of the agency’s other pantries distributes half that amount.

Most food pantries are little more than closets in church basements, often run by elderly female volunteers.

The Fairhill center is a dramatic departure, a 1,200-square-foot miniature supermarket in the basement of the Lillian Marrero Branch of the Free Library at 601 W. Lehigh Ave. Last week was the first time the pantry offered fresh produce, including onions and cantaloupes.

Clients who have previously signed up can fill two standard supermarket hand baskets, which are fitted onto wheeled carts. Certain products are limited – no more than three juices or one loaf of bread, for example.

And, because it’s a food pantry, there is no checkout.

Currently, the center cannot take new clients. Those now permitted to use it were asked to provide an unofficial accounting of their finances when registering.

“The people in this neighborhood who come here are the chronic poor, the deep end of the ocean,” said Marlo DelSordo, a Philabundance spokeswoman.

According to agency research, 98 percent of people who registered at the center live at or below the federal poverty line, and in 86 percent of the households, no one is employed.

In contrast to those dismal conditions, the center has an appealing ambience. Frosted windows flood the white-walled oasis with light, and a radio plays soft rock. Philabundance staff and volunteers are Whole Foods-helpful, but always mindful of the financial status of the clients.

“People tell us, ‘God bless you,’ ” said Kendra Mariassy, program manager. ” ‘Thank you for being here.’ They’re so grateful. And everyone asks, ‘I get to pick the food myself?’ ”

It’s still a surprise to many people. “All other pantries give you what they have, and you wind up throwing away things you don’t need,” said client Marie Valcin, 49, of Northeast Philadelphia. She’s the mother of two children, aged 13 and 6, and was recently laid off from a clerical job at an insurance company.

“Here is choice. There’s ground beef and hot dogs. There’s yogurt. This is more considerate. This is respect.”

Clark said the idea for the center came from conversations he’d had four years ago with Marty Meloche, a professor in the food-marketing department of St. Joseph’s University and a member of the Philabundance board.

The hard part was finding a space. Meloche said that his friend Waddell Ridley, former director of the Mayor’s Office of Community Service, helped Philabundance secure donated space in the library basement.

St. Joseph’s gave $10,000 to augment Philabundance funds used to make the space usable and attractive. Clark said it will cost $225,000 a year to run the center, whose food comes from items donated by industry as well as from food drives.

“There’s no begging feeling to this for clients,” Meloche said.

That makes a difference, according to John Arnold, director of an agency similar to Philabundance in western Michigan. He’s credited with opening the first choice pantry, in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1995.

Arnold said that hundreds of interviews with food-pantry clients conducted by Michigan State University researchers proved to him that clients don’t feel good about having food handed to them.

“That just broke my heart,” Arnold said in an interview. “People realized they had hit rock bottom, because they were just handed an arbitrary selection of food.

“That’s not being treated with respect. That’s how you feed dogs and horses. I was so incensed.”

Fearful that Grand Rapids city officials wouldn’t support his choice pantry, Arnold drew up a final will and was set to go on a hunger strike. He got his way, and his pantry opened.

These days, there are dozens of choice pantries throughout the United States, according to Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feeding America, the nation’s leading domestic hunger-relief charity, with headquarters in Chicago.

“It’s been a growing trend, especially over the last five years,” he said. “It cuts down on waste and is much more efficient.”

It’s Clark’s wish to get his second choice pantry open soon, but he’s hoping that someone will donate space.

He’ll also need volunteers, in Fairhill as well as the new location, to help clients get their food.

“This kind of place is so much better than regular pantries,” said Bernard Price, 77, a retired house painter living on $500 a month from Social Security. Last week was his first time at the Fairhill pantry.

“In bad times, it’s good to have something to fall back on.”

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