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Delaware – St. Stephen’s Pantry

May 10, 2012

Tuesday, May 8: How hard can it be to hand out food? People show up, you hand them food, they walk away with it, and one hopes that it enhances their sense of personal security that day, however slightly: they have food to eat for a few more days. Turns out that it’s pretty hard work—both mentally and physically. I found that out volunteering this morning with the great people at St. Stephen’s Pantry, a service of Lutheran Community Services (LCS) of Delaware ( in Wilmington.

The pantry distributes over a half a million meals to hungry people every year. Aaron Ballett, LCS Assistant Program Director, directs the program and Cher Frampton is the LCS Volunteer Coordinator. They both pitched in today when they could because we were short volunteers. Peter Buttenheim, an experienced volunteer and all-around sage, ran the crew today. He told me that a minimum staff should be 5 people. At first it was just Peter and I, which made me glad I was there to help, though in reality Peter had to spend quite a bit of time training me. Volunteer Don Schaeffer later joined us, so at various times there were up to five of us, but most of the time we were just two or three persons.

The work comes in waves. The physical part of the job is obvious—someone has to unload crates of food from wherever it comes from—food drives, the USDA, bakeries, and so on. I didn’t have to do that today. But of course, space is at a premium, and supply can be unpredictable—not only do you move food in once and hand it out, but you spend a considerable amount of time and energy moving it around and rearranging it, especially if a massive food drive delivery comes in. And you have to categorize it, and sometimes follow special rules: the USDA requires that its food be stored separately from all other food, even though in the end it all gets mixed together when distributed. Keeping USDA food—crucial to operations—in a separate storage area has led to the loss of a room that could have been used for other purposes.

Catching Peter Buttenheim rushing around, making it happen!

Which brings me to the mental part. With rules, of course there is paperwork. Regular morning pantry clients must have a referral (they also run a mobile pantry and other programs that don’t require a referral), and that means forms to fill out. I don’t know how many different agencies call in referrals—well more than a dozen. Peter patiently gave me the rundown, but of course being new I goofed up several times, forgetting to record the person’s ID number, or forgetting to have them sign the form. As anyone who works with forms knows, there are always those questions or spaces requiring answers that no longer apply or don’t have the right categories, as the rules change or as unique people present unique circumstances that the form wasn’t made to capture. So you write in extra information, you ignore some questions (ignoring takes mental effort!)–it’s a lot to track, but I suppose after experience you just know how to do it.

And then there is the food itself. This morning we were out of many things. There are prescribed menus from which to select items, quantities depending on the number of persons, but what if certain categories of food aren’t available, like today? No meat of any kind? Substitute beans (more beans in addition to the beans they’re already getting).

Reaching for more beans!

No cereal? Substitute matzoh (not wanted by at least one would-be recipient today). No tomato sauce? Just forget about the pasta. But don’t forget about the special items that may be on hand—like pistachios! Don’t hand out the Girl Scout cookies because there are pastries today with a much shorter shelf life. Filling the bags of food requires constant mental adjustments and new calculations as different foods arrive and disappear, all in one morning. Today we had a bonanza of baked goods to wrap up and top off people’s bags.

Which brings me to personal attention. Pantry staff make a point of providing food of good quality—no stale bread, no jelly doughnuts that were smashed with filling oozing out. And when they can, they give people choices. I saw Peter, even at his busiest—with the phone ringing, with people waiting in line, with bags to fill—asking people what they preferred. Would you like chicken cutlets or bacon, or (for families of several persons) one of each? One could easily just decide that people will get what they get, and “damn it, they should be grateful for it.” The ability to choose, even when the options are few and predetermined, is at the core of our concept of human dignity. Peter, Cher, Dan, and Aaron seemed to be all about supporting people’s dignity in any way possible.

Despite feeling overwhelmed at times with all the learning required, and wondering if I was being helpful (who’s going to have to deal with any mistakes I might leave in my wake?), I left the pantry ENERGIZED at 11:45 a.m., a few minutes before it was to wind down, after three hours of buzzing around answering the phone, filling bags, attending to clients, and squeezing in bits of conversation whenever possible. As I write this on the train back to DC (from where I’ll be flying fly home to Seattle this evening), I feel gratitude for the warm welcome and appreciation that the St. Stephen’s Pantry staff and volunteers extended to me—all because I showed up for three hours to do what they do all the time.

Where else can I “just show up” in my daily life to make a little difference for someone? Who has suggestions and experiences of their own to share?

[Next stop, German-Russian country and the Prairie Places Festival ( in North Dakota: from Bismarck to Wishek, Napoleon, and Lehr (May 18-20)]

From → Delaware

  1. Davis,
    Thanks so much for choosing us to start this incredible journey of yours! We were thrilled to have you on board with us that day and hope to see you again if your travel takes you down our path again. We wish you much luck and look forward to reading your stories here. I’ll let you know when I post my story about you on our volunteer blog. I just have not had time this week to stop and post it. I am hoping to get it this weekend or early next week. I got some great photos!

    Thanks again, it was a great experience for us all!!
    Cher Frampton
    Volunteer Coordinator

    • This one experience had a real impact on me, for which I am very grateful! I’ll always remember it as my first Random Act of Volunteering. Looking forward to seeing where all of this leads me.

  2. Zemo Trevathan permalink

    Wow! What a great project! What a great way to share your experiences and learnings! Thanks, Davis, I’m in for the journey!

  3. What a great idea, Davis. I think that service is the most rewarding experience one can have in life. I appreciate you taking up the challenge and raising the awareness of the rest of us too! You might find the blog of our acquaintance Seam Aiken interesting. He did the One Week Job Project a few years ago and got a lot of people focused on finding their passion . In North Dakota, you might go to Williston or other places experience sudden change and challenge due to the huge influx of workers there for “fracking” to get mineral resources from the ground.

    • Thanks for the tips, Garrison. I’m going to collect other blogs/sites with related content, and this looks like the career counterpart (gotta admire his 100% commitment to the search) to my search for volunteering experiences. Very cool!

    Finally my post! Sorry, it’s been one crazy week and I leave for Cleveland tomorrow night! lol

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