Health Care

Wheeler: Nonprofit feeds, teaches and helps people grow food

Folding tables lined with oranges, apples and sweet-smelling strawberries. Cardboard bins bursting with cabbage, collards and all kinds of bread. Aproned workers wearing bright and helpful smiles.

This was the healthful and happy picture that recently greeted folks who moved from a line outside Martin Street Baptist Church into the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s first mobile market open to all in need in Raleigh.

More than 115 families walked away with bags and boxes stuffed with some of the 10,000 pounds of goods that IFFS had hauled to the church in two refrigerated trucks.

“I work a part-time job, and I barely make it,” Earlyne Bascombe said as she filled a bag with collards. “This is such a blessing.”

The mobile market is but one of a multitude of programs offered by the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, whose motto is: “We feed. We teach. We grow. Give a man a fish. Teach a man to fish. Stock the pond for all.”

• Feed? IFFS is filling the school-year gap by providing breakfast, lunch and snacks this summer to children in low-income areas. In Wake County, where 33 percent of schoolchildren qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, food is available in eight locations.

• Teach? The nonprofit offers a culinary job training program that prepares those with severe life challenges for careers in food service. It also offers apprenticeships for teenagers interested in learning how to farm.

• Grow? IFFS has its own 6-acre farm in Raleigh and helps low-income neighborhoods start community gardens.

“We realize we have to do more than just give people food,” said Kia Baker, the agency’s director of food recovery and distribution. “We’re building the food security system.”

Making a dent

Fresh is the focus. The vast majority of the food is produce that is donated by chain grocery stores and area farmers who let IFFS volunteers glean their fields after the first harvest.

“We have hundreds of volunteers picking sweet potatoes, kale, squash,” said Don Eli, director of food donations. “It’s all perfectly good. We get a lot from the State Farmers Market. They want to help if they can. The volume they have left over every day, that could feed hundreds of people.”

The nonprofit conducts 37 mobile markets across seven counties each month and always needs more volunteers. Gleaning would be a particularly good activity for bored teenagers this summer.

“We can’t even put a dent in the need,” Eli said. “We don’t care what problems people are having. We just want to give them food, help them get on their feet so they can sustain themselves.”

Almost none of the produce – even the pounds and pounds of rutabagas that entered and then exited Martin Street Baptist Church untouched – goes to waste. Those in the agency’s culinary program cook it and then flash-freeze it into meals to distribute.

Wilford Fox, one of about 30 church members who volunteered to help with the market, was manning the huge rutabaga box.

“You can take the whole box if you can get it out of here,” he coaxed the customers.

Most politely refused. “That’s not my favorite,” one said, warily eyeing the cross between a cabbage and turnip that Fox held out to her. “I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

How-to, too

Showing people how to cook produce in healthy ways actually is a large part of what the food shuttle does. At every market, the nonprofit sends nutritionists who demonstrate techniques and pass out recipe cards.

On this Saturday, they were serving up whole-wheat tortillas smeared with low-fat cream cheese infused with fresh herbs then stuffed with fresh vegetables. Scores of people, many using canes or pushing walkers or strollers, stopped for a bite and exclaimed over the flavors.

About an hour after the market’s doors opened, with the last family served, church volunteer Linda Davis was still smiling – and happily dancing as she wiped up onion peels.

“I love it,” she said, raising her hands high. “I love helping people. This has been a great day. Praise God.”

Coming to the aid of others, Davis knows, feeds more than the hungry.