A month ago, the Food Pantries for the Capital District gave me the Sister Mary Coons award, acknowledging my efforts running the food pantry at Unity House. At the gala, I spoke about the wonderful permission I felt as an employee, and the myth that low income people don't want healthy food. This was a party and I kept my comments brief, knowing I could expand elsewhere.
Unity House began when I was born, in the late 1960s, as part of the faith meets the streets movement. Founder Mary Jane Smith was a nun at the time, and she and her peers were granted a building slated for demolition. Mary Jane and her colleagues opened the front door of that house and asked what the community needed. Dinner? Homework help? Day care? A sofa to sleep on because your spouse beat you? Sure.
That message carried into the new Unity House building under the bridge, and in 2013, I became one of 350 Unity House employees, hired to help make the community meals program healthier.
Mary Jane worked on the cafeteria line Wednesdays, and people were always glad to see her, as she was to see them. I took her lead, of connecting with folks one by one, and the lore of the early days of Unity House, as my license. What did people need?
I thought they needed education about eating their fruits and vegetables, but surprise, surprise, they knew that. The salads and vegetables we served disappeared, and so did any fresh fruit we offered. A few people were loud about not eating yucky stuff, or healthy things, but they were the noisy exception.
Gradually, I got educated about the people I was serving. They had good food impulses, but lacked spare income for fresh produce. I saw people who lived alone, and thought about what I ate when my family traveled: toast and oatmeal. Who wants to make a balanced meal for one?
Eventually, I began ordering food for the pantry as well as the kitchen, and got a job title, Food Security Manager. (People who are food insecure can't afford an adequate diet.)
Many food pantries are volunteer efforts tucked into free spaces like church basements, and don’t have the support of a large organization. Paid staffing is a luxury, and walk-in refrigerators are too. Given that infrastructure, a team of long-term volunteers, and a founder whose spirit still informed the work, I had permission to expand the food offerings.
What food do people need? Students from Sage asked and we got requests for more meat, more vegetables, more fruit. We worked with community partners, including Capital Roots' Squash Hunger program, to bring more produce into the little no-cost grocery store under the Hoosick Street bridge. We got a grant from the Department of Environmental Conservation to buy another freezer, and fetch more salvage, nutrient dense food from the Regional Food Bank. Every month, we distributed 20-25,000 pounds of food to people facing long and short-term problems feeding themselves. Up to 6000 pounds of that was fresh produce, and none of it was sweets.
I am grateful I had the chance to help create a model pantry for healthier food, and grateful the Food Pantries for the Capital District honored me. But after six years at Unity House, I am carrying Mary Jane's question beyond Unity House. What do people need? Yes, groceries, but that's just a symptom of larger economic imbalances.
I began thinking about this last December, when I read EVICTED: Poverty and Profit in the American City, by Matthew Desmond. The book traces the impact of housing instability on a community in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Reading it, I saw how eviction interrupts human potential, and that the cure for hunger is housing, not lunch.
I understood that the largest permission I’d been granted was not this great job that let me explore food security in my neighborhood. My permission slip was the stability I got from living under the same roof for most of my childhood, stability that let me leave my job to pursue social change on a broader scale.
Desmond is coming to town November 14th for a community conversation about his work. I am looking forward to the event, and to the steps we can take in the Capital District to address the housing problems undermining our vulnerable neighbors.
Amy Halloran is a writer in Troy, New York.
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