JP Observer: Food pantry in, by and for JP needs support

The historic First Church in Jamaica Plain, Unitarian Universalist, whose clock looks out over the Monument Square Historic District, also houses a unique human service effort.

Seventeen volunteers from JP manage and staff a food pantry there that provides basic staples for free to other local people who are in need. The church, the individuals and businesses who contribute and the people who receive free food form a tight, local circle of nourishment.

First Church minister Terry Burke, who passed away on Aug. 15 after retiring last summer, supported parishioners in setting up the pantry in 2009. He said that people were knocking on the church door asking for food.

Unlike most pantries, The Food Pantry at First Church has no paid staff and does not ask for identification or any information from clients. The volunteers, about half of whom are parish members, don’t want to bother keeping records, according to organizers. Most important, they don’t want to put up barriers between their neighbors and food they need.

“It’s community for community,” said volunteer Jim Kilmurray, who can also speak Spanish with recipients.

The pantry serves about 125 people every month of all ages, races, and circumstances, organizers say, and that was evident when I visited earlier this month. Recipients seem to include homeless people, families, men and women. The pantry is announced once a year in the Gazette, and many people hear about it through word of mouth.

“It’s not complicated,” volunteer Jane Zerby said of the hands-on “social justice” project. “We’re not dealing with root causes here. We’re giving people food.”

Recipients can get basic staples like pasta and canned goods, fresh produce when available, bakery bread, and a few personal items. No meat is given out. Every once in a while the pantry may offer donated baby food or diapers, very popular items.

The atmosphere is friendly. Volunteers and recipients chatted with each other, exchanging pleasantries as recipients took turns going from table to table to choose products.

Individuals, many of them church members, donate nonperishable items and funds. Local businesses, like When Pigs Fly and Whole Foods help, too. But supplemental food, fresh produce, household items, storage bins, rolling cabinets and shelving cost money.

Although the pantry probably has enough resources to stay open for another year, they are struggling financially, organizers said.

More people are needed to help this important local effort by donating food, time and money. The local Whole Foods is doing a fundraiser this month for the pantry, and the pantry will also benefit from the Ride for Food on Sept. 20. Streetcar will do a fundraiser in October. For information on how to further support the pantry, contact volunteer Gwyn Helie at [email protected].

At the last open pantry, almost everyone was smiling. Every once in a while a recipient would exclaim in happiness when they found something they really needed. The more people who pitch in, the more likely that local happiness can continue and even increase.


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