Backyard to Pantry

Finding inspiration at St. Vincent de Paul

In an interview with Madison Magazine nearly eight years ago, then Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl looked at the burgeoning food scene and presciently sounded an alarm. “What worries me,” she told us, “is I think we’re very much in danger of creating a two-tiered system where if you’re affluent enough you can eat vegetables that have never been sprayed with pesticides, and milk that doesn’t have BGH in it, and meat that doesn’t have hormones in it, and if you’re poor ... tough.”

For millions of people in this country today that worry is a reality; but it’s not rooted in the restaurants and markets about which Reichl was speaking, but in the growing problem of food insecurity in the aftermath of an unforeseeable recession. Thus our search for the genuine article this month led us to an unlikely place: the food pantry operated by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at 2033 Fish Hatchery Rd. where, equally unlikely, we found it.

Barely one year old, the Center for Vincentian Charity lately has been serving roughly two thousand families a month. Faced with that kind of demand the expected response would be to simply get food to as many people as efficiently as possible. Instead St. Vincent de Paul operates a customer-choice model of distribution that is cost effective and dignified. The pantry is more like a grocery store. Individuals and families check in and when it’s their turn they are escorted one at a time into the pantry by a volunteer host. Rather than being given a bag of groceries, clients make their own choices using a system of points assigned by family size and apportioned for various food groups with allowances for preferences like vegetarians and those with food allergies. The system allows for differences of culture and taste and eliminates the problem of unwanted food simply being thrown away.

Executive director Ralph Middlecamp points out the little things that are so important, products like beans and rice available in bulk and glass doors on the freezers. But the key is clearly the volunteers. At the pantry nine hundred people put in a total of 1,750 hours a month. It’s a big enough number to offer a sense of anonymity that some find comforting. But it’s also the human interaction that makes the system so respectful: hosts help clients navigate their points, talk about how foods can be used and even exchange recipes. There is a sense of community, with volunteers having the experience of sharing with people they might never meet. People who are poor.

And if the two-tired food system that Reichl is worried about is to be changed, it’s in community engagement. Middlecamp makes no bones about the pantry’s needs. In addition to the $270,000 goal to complete the capital campaign for the building, he says the pantry could always use more dairy products and would like to add (and label) more low-sodium foods to help with the health issues of families they serve. He’d also welcome more corporate sponsors, perhaps one company pledging to contribute a supply of one item—like beef stew—for one year. Director of community relations Ernie Stetenfeld adds one more: “What we want is fresh produce.” Plans are in the works. 2010 is the first year St. Vincent de Paul will reap the entire harvest from the Lacy Road gardens.

But it’s Grow a Row for St. Vincent de Paul’s Pantry that excites us. In their plans for this year’s gardens local growers are being asked to include a row or two (or more) of bell pepper, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, green beans, squash, tomato or other healthy vegetables “for sharing with local families struggling with poverty.” From your garden to those who really need it. Like St. Vincent de Paul’s pantry; not just providing food, but doing it as well as possible—with respect.

Visit svdpmadison.org for more information.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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