"My heart is full." That is what Rene Feuerman's 8-year old daughter, Olivia, said to her mother after they delivered fifty bags of food to the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry in St. Paul's Episcopal Church. The hefty donation came from a birthday party for Olivia where, in lieu of gifts, guests brought food donations.
That simple but profound statement from her daughter inspired Feuerman to start volunteering at the pantry. When the pantry's longtime director Jim Margolis moved to New York last spring, Feuerman was tapped to be his successor.
"Jim is a wonderful man," Feuerman said, "I talk to him on the phone regularly for guidance and support."
Feuerman moved to Brookline in 1989 and worked as a financial planner for JP Morgan Chase for twelve years before making the transition to staying at home to raise her children. Working at the food pantry does take some time away from her kids, she admits, but the rewards she gets from working there have changed her life.
Feuerman faces many challenges in her new role. Foremost in her mind is making the experience of visiting the pantry a dignified and private one. She keeps the staff small, with only a handful of volunteers working in the pantry at one time. Clients shop one at a time. They are allowed one paper bag to fill if they are single and two bags if they have a family. In addition to this they get cereal, bread, fresh produce, juice, snacks, toiletry items, and selections from the refrigerator and freezer -- enough food to keep them from going hungry, but not too much that they can't manage to carry out their items.
Said Feuerman, "It's courageous to put away your pride to help your family. It's hard for the majority of clients to ask for help. Those who shop here are part of the community and should not be embarrassed."
Feuerman and her volunteers also face the challenge of pointing their clients to more nutritious food choices. That's why they always supplement the processed food with produce. The canned goods they purchase are low-sodium.
The Brookline Emergency Food Pantry has gained a reputation outside of the community for having an appealing choice of food. People from nearby towns like Brighton and Dorchester have heard about the pantry and occasionally show up there. Feuerman hates to turn anyone who's hungry away so she let's him or her pick out food once and then refers them to Project Bread or to their local food donation center.
"Not many food pantries are run like ours, " Feuerman observed, "A lot of places you get a bag and whatever is in it is what you get. By providing choice our clients can pick what they want and it's more of a food shopping experience."
In order to be able to offer more fresh food alternatives one of the pantry's goals for 2013 is better refrigeration. Feuerman also wants to make sure that they are reaching anyone in Brookline who is hungry. A complicating factor in this is anticipating how much food to have on hand on any given day.
There is no rhyme or reason to what the demand will be each day. They could have fifty clients or ten.
When asked about the pantry's overall growth, Feuerman observed that corporations are always emphasizing the importance of growth, but at the pantry they want to see the need shrinking.
The demand for the pantry's services has more than doubled since 2009. In 2009 the pantry had 2,700 visitors.
"We served just under 5,000 visitors last year," Feuerman reported, "that's single households and families of five." That translates into an expenditure of $115,000 spent on food in 2012, with 100% of that money going to stock the pantry.
According to Feuerman, many of these new visitors were the result of letters sent to students receiving subsidized lunches in the Brookline school system. The need can be especially great in the summer, when schools are out and children are no longer getting subsidized breakfasts and lunches.
One thing the pantry does not provide is hot meals. Explained Feuerman, "Most of the clients like to pick up their food, take it home, and in the comfort of their home cook a meal, sit down with their family, and pretend that things are OK, that they're trying to get by. Brookline is unique in that sense that we have a lot of people who have jobs but still can't make ends meet."
She adds, "The face of hunger is changing."
To support the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry at St. Paul's Church, please consider a food or cash donation to the Feed Brookline drive. You can learn more about the drive at www.feedbrookline.org.
By Jennifer Campaniolo