Five days a week – sun, snow and rain – people in need gather at the back door of St. Joseph’s CME Church to wait for Heavenly Groceries.
The food pantry on West Rosemary Street opens promptly at 4 p.m., but the work starts two hours before when boxes are unloaded and sorted to weed out moldy, rotten or badly damaged produce. The volunteers gather for a short prayer before opening the doors:
“Bless this food. Bless the bodies that prepared it and the bodies that will be receiving it.”
Patrons draw numbers from a sack and are called at random to join the line inside. They use a lottery system, supervisor Gladys Pendergraph said, so people don’t show up early to get a good spot and loiter for hours.
Pantry workers don’t ask for names, but they do track the number of people served in each household, where they live, and their gender and race.
They require patrons to bring their own bag or cart. The number of each item they can take from the tables laden with fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, desserts, breads and prepared foods, such as sandwiches and salads, depends on how many people show up and how much food is available that day.
A “box day” on the first Friday of every month provides canned goods from the Carrboro-based nonprofit PORCH.
Heavenly Groceries’ patrons are diverse – black, white, Hispanic, Asian and American Indian – and number 3,000 or more in a typical month. They come by bus, car and on foot from Durham, Orange, Chatham, Alamance and other counties, Pendergraph said.
“I see, and the people tell me, the people who come here every day are unsettled, they’re homeless, a lot of men, and they come to just get a sandwich or something they can eat that day,” Pendergraph said. “Some don’t have a refrigerator to store things. We serve anyone who comes.”
Other families show up to supplement their income or food stamp allotments. Fresh fruits and vegetables, while healthy, are often too expensive for low-income families to buy at the store, she said.
The program started 13 years ago as a “bread ministry,” senior volunteer Lillian Alston said, but soon became a full-fledged food pantry under the leadership of former St. Joseph’s Pastor Troy Harrison Sr. and his wife Bernice Harrison.
Alston and two other senior volunteers – Lillie Edwards and Katherine Council – are now in their 80s but try to show up every day the pantry opens. The pantry has been certified in recent years and become a partner of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
There isn’t a lot of money to spare. The pantry is a low-budget operation, Pendergraph said, relying on church donations to maintain and buy gas for the van they use to pick up food donations. The aging vehicle will need to be replaced soon, she said.
The food comes from community partners, including Food Lion, the Inter-Faith Council for Social Services, PORCH and TABLE.
A core group of six volunteers operates the pantry with the help of neighbors, UNC students recruited through The Jackson Center for Saving and Making History, also located at the church, and high school students. The work meets high school community service requirements.
Other volunteers include those who were helped in the past, including one woman who Pendergraph said sought help after being laid off. She returned later to give back, Pendergraph said. Another man who had little to spare painted a picture of the church to thank them for helping his family, she said. The picture hangs in a prominent place on the pantry wall.
At least 15 percent of Orange County’s population is food insecure, a County Health Rankings report shows, meaning those families go without adequate food and nutrition. Another 11 percent have limited access to healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, the report shows.
While some Heavenly Groceries patrons take their food and go, others linger to share share family and neighborhood news with “Mama Alston” and “Mama Kat” or give them a hug. People don’t stop to visit as much as they used to, the women said.
But the pantry has been “a blessing,” Alston said. It gives her a reason to get out of the house and helps her deal with the loss of two children. Her son Harry Alston used to visit her every day before he was hit and killed by a bus on N.C. 54 in 2006, she said.
“You know, sometimes you see people that are so down inside, it’s nice to help them, and it helps me, too, because I’ve been having a hard time,” Alston said. “If I just stayed home, I don’t think I would last too long.”
How to help
The Heavenly Groceries food pantry is always looking for volunteers and donations of food and money. You can find more information about the pantry and how to volunteer at nando.com/1hg. The website also includes links to a volunteer manual and sign-up form.
Questions? Visit the pantry, in the basement of St. Joseph’s CME Church at 510 W. Rosemary St., or email firstname.lastname@example.org.