This is a column I wrote in June of 2013 about the food pantry in Hastings.
Once a week, there is a mobile food pantry at the old elementary school cafeteria. Volunteers gather to give out thousands of pounds of food to needy families. For two years, this gathering of folks from all over has created a little community within a community and has helped to build bridges that have been absent for a long time.
Joan Dewitt, a Hastings native, stands side by side with Sherrie Venturi from the northwest of the community. Within minutes they are trading recipes and talking children over tables piled high with lettuce and collards, spinach and carrots.
Rosa Tolbert is at the door checking folks in. She knows most of the people in town and greets them all like long-lost friends. She always goes to bed early the day before she volunteers so she will be well rested for “her job.”
In the fall, Loretta comes from Ponte Vedra Beach. She and Mrs. Dewitt always have their heads together laughing and sorting vegetables.
John Nottingham ushers people in the door.
He works all day in the sod field, rushes home to clean up so he can volunteer. Everyone knows John as the tall fella with the big smile and the hearty laugh. Sometimes, if John is working late, Newt Miles covers for him. Mr. Miles volunteers two days a week at the soup kitchen and then at the food pantry. He and Harold Felder won’t let a girl lift a box. They always elbow the women out of the way saying, “Ya’ll go on now, we got this.”
Just down the aisle you have Timothy Reese, whose hand was injured in a grader accident.
Now he is leaning over the banana boxes full of fresh fruit and veggies, carefully laying the chosen eggplant or cantaloupe in a shopper’s bag and always with a smile.
A little further down the lane you find Brenda Hayward, a farm worker who is teaching Federal Point resident and film producer Sandra Birnhak how to hand out the strawberries and the cheese. You will see Sandra listening intently and clearly taking her cues from Brenda, who has been doing it for awhile. Sandra brings in her friend Marc Baer, who also falls in line under Brenda’s direction. Together they work like a well- oiled machine.
Sandra brings potatoes or cabbage or watermelons she gets donated from local farmers. She also brings photographs of whales and seals. Folks enjoy learning about her travels and hearing the stories of life in Antarctica.
Over in the corner you have Alex and Gerald and Russell and Christopher, tearing down boxes as fast they come in. In the back of the room you might make a plate of the wonderful chicken and pasta salad from Sherrie or have big ole piece of white potato pie from Mrs. Tolbert. Then you will see George Landess, who has been leaning over the sink washing thousands of individual strawberries, making sure that everyone that goes out is one he would eat himself.
Ellen Walden is there, too. She is running from kitchen to table, coordinating and making calls to make sure everything is used and will get where it needs to go.
In the kitchen, Nancy Somerset, Isabel Rodriguez, David Green and Teri Bachus go through dozens upon dozens of eggs, taking out the cracked ones, washing the rest and repackaging them. They wash grapes and apples, the raspberries and blueberries, and they help George with the thousands of strawberries.
In the far back Tyler Whitt travels the furthest, from north of the city, Tom Webb comes from the south and David Green comes from Flagler Estates. The three lift and sort the hundreds of pounds of meat each week, dividing it into 80 meals for the home bound residents, single snacks and meals that are delivered to a senior living community and large and oversized meats that get donated to Dining with Dignity so they can be used to feed the homeless.
All of those meals are delivered by volunteers. One group is comprised of Mary Groves, from Palatka; Mary Alice Wolfe, a former school teacher in Hastings; Bobbie Nelson, Tammy and Avice. The “Angels on Wheels” as they are known, are all senior citizens themselves, and they deliver to other seniors who are not able to leave their homes.
Stephanie Woods and Tanya Jackson put together the 80 bags, carefully selecting a little bit of everything, designed with the seniors in mind.
George Richardi and Buzzy come from St. Augustine and Charlotte Woodard is a new resident of East Palatka. They work the bread and desserts, each taking great pride in knowing who likes what. Wendy has also been filling in on the bread table. Most often you will see her on the other side of the table, hugging children and helping folks get their bags out the door. She brings her son Michael, who fits right in with the rest of the crowd.
And of course there is Allie, a wonderful 12-year-old who comes with her mother, Sherrie. She has a book cart that she rolls out each week, handing out free books to kids and grown-ups alike.
Mike and Alonzo, George and Chris are there, too. They are farmworkers. But the minute they have a break, they are at the food pantry, working just as hard as they do in the fields. Mike is in constant motion, moving from task to task with the energy of 15-year-old. George and Alonzo like working the fruits and vegetables. Seeing the absolute joy on their faces as they hand out food to others, when they are in need themselves, is a gift.
On this one day, they are the givers and it is an opportunity they relish and take great pride in. At the end of the day, Michael Berry is there.
He and his sons and nephews load up his truck with all those strawberries and grapes that George couldn’t rescue. His hogs are well fed and no food is wasted.
One day a week in an old school cafeteria a little as a town comes together for a common cause. In this room, for eight hours on a Monday, everyone is the same, everyone is equal and everyone gives and receives the respect we all should have every day.
What makes a town a community?
At the food pantry it is creating the opportunity to give. And proving that no matter where you are from, how you grew up, how much money you have or what color you are, when we all come together, we are one and we are a community.