It was suggested I wear an old shirt and pants, the sort of clothes I didn’t mind staining with fruit juice. Being new to Community Human Services, I heeded the advice with the willful diligence new employees always have during their first weeks on a new job. I even sported the shoes I normally paint in, just in case anything went rogue. As the new Development Specialist for CHS, my responsibilities include creating a voice for CHS and finding ways for communities within Allegheny County to hear it. And as a new team member, the biggest question I have is as follows: how is CHS impacting Pittsburgh communities? Let’s begin with the CHS food pantry, located at 370 Lawn Street in South Oakland.
The CHS Food Pantry was a stop on a tour I had the week before, but the place looked entirely different with boxes of fresh produce stacked on the tables. A space that had felt underwhelming quickly changed to overwhelming, a feeling many who visit the CHS food pantry during on and off hours can relate to. While the pantry is only open on Thursdays and Fridays, it serves an average of 123 families every week. During my two days volunteering, we served 130. The average family walks away from the CHS food pantry with about 40 pounds of food. While this is just a temporary solution to the family's situation, that distribution of food can be the difference between them eating or not—or being able to afford to pay their rent or other expenses. Choosing what we spend our money on is a decision we can all relate to, but for some Pittsburgh communities, choosing whether or not to eat in order to afford other basic needs is a situation that’s unfortunately becoming increasingly more common.
Yet providing families with food isn’t enough for the CHS food pantry. Providing access to fresh, healthy food is a greater challenge the pantry faces head on. Annie Fiffick, the coordinator of the CHS food pantry, explained to me that the purpose of the CHS food pantry is to provide healthy food choices, so food that will encourage and sustain growth, especially for children facing hunger. Bread that is donated is made of whole grains and canned items are selected by their low sugar content. At CHS, our mission is to make sure everyone has access to quality food, and having a healthy life begins with the food we eat. People who visit the CHS food pantry come from various situations and backgrounds, and none of those experiences makes one undeserving of having access to healthy food.
From a logistical standpoint, the CHS food pantry is relatively straightforward. Food is picked up from the Pittsburgh Food Bank or donated by local businesses. Volunteers go through the food and check for freshness, restock shelves with any remaining product from the back, and break down larger quantities of product, like onions and potatoes, into smaller bags for clients. Clients get a number when they arrive and are served in that order. The setup is similar to a grocery store, where clients can shop at their own pace and choose what they take home with them. To avoid running out of fresh produce, each person who shops at the CHS food pantry receives an amount of food appropriate for their family size. Volunteers help clients shop, giving them options and limits to how much they can take with them. This way the food pantry can reach as many people as possible and clients receive the same variety of food whether they are first in line or thirty-seventh.
Really, why the CHS food pantry is so successful is because of its approach towards the individual. While it cannot solve the hunger crisis in all of Allegheny County, the pantry is using its resources to make an impact on hunger. It’s being a good neighbor, which is the best word to describe the CHS food pantry. As if it were run by neighbors within the community, the food pantry is a space intended to be shared by people on all sides. “We want people to feel welcome here,” said Mike Hedfors, the pantry’s Transport and Outreach Specialist. Anyone who spends time at the CHS food pantry works under the same sentiment: we are their neighbors, and they are ours.
I’m reminded of what was said during my initial tour of the pantry. What we do at CHS is hard work. Social work in and of itself is hard work, and at times, it’s extremely taxing. It’s also easy to fall victim to the hopelessness many of us feel today towards issues we deem too large to change on an individual level. I know I feel that way sometimes. How can one person make a difference? But with my time at CHS so far, the reminder of why we do what we do can be found at the food pantry. There’s something almost magical about the place. Whether it’s as a client or a volunteer, the tone there is welcoming. That’s how Annie and Mike treat everyone. I immediately felt a part of the team. People are grateful, openhearted, and unassuming. It’s clear that everyone is advocating for one another, where people are on the same team, just men and women trying to do their best. Even though the space is not large, it serves more people fresh produce than any other food pantry in Pittsburgh. The team is small, but compassionate and dedicated to being a good neighbor. The food pantry is entirely for the community, and that’s an encouraging sight to see right now. Without it, adults and children in Pittsburgh would most certainly go hungry. Everyone deserves access to healthy food. There’s plenty to go around, but it takes considerate coordination to create this big share the CHS food pantry is undertaking each week. Those receiving this service are our neighbors and our allies, and no matter how hard our work at CHS becomes, the food pantry is an example of what can be built from the hard work of compassionate people.
CHS Development Specialist