Jim Margolis, Brookline Emergency Food Pantry Manager

Jim Margolis, Brookline Emergency Food Pantry Manager

Anyone who has ever had anything to do with the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry knows Jim Margolis.  His dedication and compassion have touched the lives of so many in Brookline.  By his efforts and those of many volunteers at the Pantry, individuals and families in need of a helping hand have been fed, time and time again.

The Early Days

Jim Margolis loves supermarkets and food shopping. He always has. The retiring Manager of the Brookline Emergency Food Pantry, now 75, always wanted to work and was turned down at age eight to be a paperboy. He waited until he was old enough and then did it for five years. He loved having extra money, and at 13 bought a three-speed English racer bike with money earned from delivering papers for $75.

With a brother five years younger, Jim grew up with a dad who was an academic and a stay-at-home mom. The family moved because his father changed jobs. His father received a PhD in genetics from New York University, but lost an NYU teaching job the year Jim was born. His dad couldn’t get another teaching job, so the family moved to Cleveland to live with Jim’s grandparents.

His father began teaching part-time at a school for funeral directors, and opened a school in Pittsburgh in 1939, when Jim was three. Unfortunately, though, his dad lost all his students during the war. The family was poor, but Jim never knew it because, as he puts it, “being poor is a state of mind, not a social situation.”

At age 15, his father bought a school for funeral directors in NYC and the family moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, where Jim attended high school. Jim’s father read Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ book On Death and Dying, which deals with the process of grieving after a loss. It changed his life. In the 1960s, Jim’s dad introduced a focus on grief into funeral education. It was his big contribution to the field.

At age 16, Jim went to work at a local Food Fair supermarket.  There he proved to be a big success. First he moved carts, bagged groceries, and then worked the cash register. Within a year, Jim managed the cashiers. He learned every aspect of the store, and even cut school to go to work. The store did $50,000 a week in business. At the time, bread was 19 cents.

Upon graduating from high school, the regional VP offered Jim a management job at Food Fair, which had several hundred stores. Jim turned it down to instead attend Columbia University, where he majored in economics. He commuted to college out of financial necessity.

At Columbia, Jim became an expert fencer, winning the NCAA championship in 1957. He moved onto the US National team and fenced at the Olympics in 1960 in Rome, the same Olympics where Cassius Clay, aka Muhammed Ali, and Wilma Rudolph came to prominence. Jim was a ROTC student in college and after entered the navy, where he continued fencing. He was on a ship briefly, but for the most part was stationed in New York City, the fencing capital of the US. He represented the US in the Pan American games and was on the Navy team in the Nationals. While in the navy, Jim married a woman with two sons and they had a daughter together. The marriage lasted ten years. The daughter from his first marriage lived with Jim and his second wife, Angela. Jim and Angela then went on to have four children together.

After college while still in New York, Jim entered the life insurance business, in which he worked for over 40 years. He sold estate planning insurance to small business owners, working with New England Life for 12 years in New York and then joining Northwestern Mutual in Boston. In New York he met his second wife Angela, originally from North Dakota and a high school drama teacher. They have been married 38 years. Angela retired from teaching to raise the children. The couple moved to Boston and raised four kids in the Driscoll school area.

They live in Brookline at the corner of Summit Avenue and Mason Terrace. With two children still in town, he plans to keep the house until next year and will visit his adult children.

Coming Full Circle

A Brookline resident for almost 33 years, Jim and Angela are returning to New York City at the end of April to be with family. They have two married children in NYC and are expecting two new grandchildren in addition to the seven they now have. Jim also maintains a good relationship with his two stepsons and their children. Jim and Angela will divide their time between NY and Lantana, Florida.

The Brookline Emergency Food Pantry

St. Paul’s Church, of which Jim is a member, has housed the food pantry for 30 years. George Champman, a priest at the Church, served as director for about the same amount of time. Jim first volunteered at the pantry upon his retirement. This was his first endeavor in fighting hunger. “I’m just doing something that I really like to do,” Jim says of his work at the pantry.

Jim now manages over 50 volunteers, serving clients of all types – individuals, families and seniors alike. Over recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of families with children coming to the food pantry. Jim’s biggest challenge has not been recruiting volunteers, but merely getting the word out. Recent newspaper coverage of the food pantry has helped, articles appearing in the Brookline Tab and Globe West, for example.

To best serve those in need, pantry staff is charged with some regulation duties; clients need to demonstrate the existence of need. Clients are eligible for help from the pantry if they receive food stamps, reside in Section 8 subsidized housing, receive Medicaid or if their children receive subsidized meals at school. In lieu of this proof, the staff accepts a letter from a social worker, clergy or a health provider. No one is turned away.

The pantry has 85 to 90 visits a week from people needed food assistance. Jim oversees it all, managing the checkbook , the volunteers and their schedules.

While the Pantry is open for specific hours (10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. on Wednesdays and 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m on Saturdays), Jim has opened the pantry in an emergency. Once the state placed a woman and her children in temporary housing for the homeless at the former Ramada Inn on Soldiers Field Road. She was there with two daughters, ages eight and four, with no food or no car. Jim picked her up and brought her to the food pantry to shop.

Unfortunately, donations received do not cover the Pantry’s entire need., and it has always had to buy food. As we all know, the price of food has gone up steadily. For years, the pantry spent $30,000 to $40,000 a year on food. In 2010, that amount rose to $77,000 and in 2011 to $93,000. For many years, the Pantry raised more money than it needed, but that is no longer the case.

Through a mail-based program under the direction of a professional fundraiser whose services were donated, the Pantry was able to raise an additional $40,000 recently. The Pantry also relies on civic organizations to help raise money. The Brookline Rotary’s Have a Heart Chocolate Extravaganza and Brookline Hub’s Feed Brookline Drive netted well over $20,000. The town has also helped out.  In June 2006, Marge Amster, the former Commercial Areas Coordinator, started food and art festivals held on the lawn of the Devotion School. It raises about $6,000.

The Pantry, in addition, receives some free food and buys some the rest at a reduced price from the Greater Boston Food Bank. Stop & Shop gives $1,200 a year from its charitable arm and Star Market does a massive collection of food for the pantry. In all, volunteers and BU students manage 40 to 50 cases of food a week.

As our talk came to an end, Jim acknowledged it will be hard for him to leave Brookline. He will miss many people, walking in the hills (so many hills!), miss Coolidge Corner and St. Paul’s Church and, of course, the food pantry.

Jim has much to look forward to, though. He may continue activism in line with his liberal politics. Arrested as a Vietnam War protester along with 300 other people years ago, he was also arrested three or four more times for protesting US policies related to Guantanamo and torture. A veteran of many Washington marches. Jim’s current political cause is protesting the current use of drones in warfare. So, there is a future of political activism for Jim and more time for family, with all those grandchildren to enjoy.

One thing is certain: he will be missed.

By Beverly Zibrak, President of the Brookline-based Word Doc, a writing and editing firm dedicated to serving the needs of small business and executives