“We’re here to lend a helping hand, and not to pass judgment on anyone,” Jane (right) says in response to a question about the purpose of the Bread For All Food Pantry at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Southeast Austin. “We all need help – the single mom who’s got kids to feed, the disabled, the working class folks who come in, and the homeless people.
“Most of all, to be able to know that the person we just helped can get on the right path again – that’s the most gratifying part.”
Jane was part of the original planning group that met over a period of eight months prior to the pantry’s opening in September 2013. She’s served as the pantry’s food purchaser ever since. By the time Bread For All closes its doors on Monday evenings at 7:30 p.m., Jane has already started the process of figuring what she’ll need to purchase for the upcoming Monday evening. Every Wednesday morning at 10:00 a.m., Jane accesses the Central Texas Food Bank (CTFB) website menu and matches up Bread For All’s needs with food available for purchase. Financial donations to Bread For All – mostly from the fifteen congregations that make up Austin City Lutherans – allow Jane to purchase peanut butter, canned goods, rice and beans, frozen meat, and miscellaneous items that CTFB is able to stock. Jane also orders fresh produce – as available – for which the food bank supplies to agency food pantries without charge.
Jane, who loves to cook, says that her maternal grandmother, Essie, showed her how to navigate in and around a kitchen. She pauses and smiles at the good memories of her grandmother that flood her mind, and comments that Essie had the deepest and prettiest blue eyes. “She could make something out of nothing in the kitchen, and she taught me how to be frugal. Even with someone else’s money,” she laughs, “I’m still a frugal shopper.”
Carol (left) also has a sense of mission that is fulfilled when she comes to help out at the pantry every Monday. Jane invited her friend to help out at the opening of the pantry – both were members of Prince of Peace – and Carol’s been part of the Monday team ever since. “I like to stay active,” she says, “and I like to be around people.” During free moments, Carol buries her fingers in yarn and deftly maneuvers a crochet hook. She makes hats for her grandkids and the children of her numerous nieces and nephews.
Every Monday Carol drives from her home in a suburb south of Austin and picks up Jane, who doesn’t drive. They and other volunteers arrive at Prince of Peace just after the noon hour to set up tables and chairs in the fellowship hall, and set out the canned food not distributed the previous week. Bread and tortillas, picked up from a sister food pantry that morning, are also set out. At 2:00 p.m. more volunteers arrive fresh from the food bank docks, their pick-ups or SUVs weighed down with the food that Jane ordered the previous Wednesday. This food is brought in and also set out for distribution. By 3:30 p.m., the tables are loaded down with potatoes, cabbages, cereal, seasonal fruit, canned goods, coolers of frozen meat, and other items – all of them gathered for neighbors in SE Austin who are in need of a helping hand.
By 6:00 p.m., Jane and Carol are at their respective posts in the pantry kitchen and gaze out into the open hall where neighbors walk from table to table and fill their grocery bags. Jane will then grab a seat, and start in on her weekly sizing up of her grocery list for 40-50 people and their dependents, many of these children. Carol stands and tends to the neighbors who file by the kitchen counter, the pantry’s last stop adjacent to the exit door, where she offers rice, pasta, and dried beans.
Both Carol and Jane live with disabilities. Jane is legally blind, from a condition that developed as a result of her premature birth. Carol survived a bad car wreck in 2005, and as a result suffers from a bad back that limits her ability to work. When necessary, both ladies walk through the line themselves as neighbors in need of food. “It’s a relief,” Jane says, “to know that a little helping hand is there each month if I need it.”
Before exiting through the door, a few neighbors will look at Carol and Jane and make purposeful eye contact. Some say “Thank you,” and others say “Bless you.” Carol smiles brightly and bids these neighbors to have a good week. “I don’t want others to feel humiliated,” Carol says, “because of their need. I try to treat everyone who comes through the line nicely and with respect. I know what it’s like to walk through the line.”
To the neighbors who thank and bless her, Jane simply responds with a knowing smile and a nod of her head. It’s all the inspiration she needs to boot up her computer on Wednesday morning to make her cyber-grocery run, and then return to the pantry the next Monday afternoon with Carol so they can do their part to make Bread For All happen once again.