By Dot Bergin
On a recent sunny Thursday afternoon this writer spent several hours observing the smooth operation of the Bedford Community Table and Food Pantry, where a crew of volunteers headed by Director Peter Grey handles the distribution of food with clockwork precision. For newcomers to town, you should know that the Food Pantry (and the Community Table, which serves dinners each Thursday from September to June,) is now going into its 25th year of providing needed assistance to area residents.
Here is a snapshot of a typical Thursday afternoon:
At 1 pm, Peter and his wife Kathy arrive at the Pantry, housed in the Town Center building, and immediately begin checking supplies and adding contributed items to the neatly-arranged shelves, already well stocked with packaged and canned goods. Volunteers arrive, bringing donations from grocery stores and restaurants. Other volunteers are busy packing sturdy brown paper bags with “basic” items such as canned vegetables and fruits, pasta, tomato sauce, mac and cheese, and perhaps tuna or other protein items. On duty recently were Evan Shamin, soon to start his senior year at Bedford High School, and Salim (Sal) Mohammed.
Peter is the guiding spirit behind the Pantry. Despite a visual impairment, he knows every inch of the storeroom and is an astute purchasing agent when the inventory needs replenishing. He has devised an efficient system for buying, storing and distributing the Pantry’s foods and has trained a crew of volunteers who work together in such close cooperation that dozens of Pantry clients can be served in an hour and a half. Work proceeds smoothly, with each volunteer knowing what his or her job is and all working together seamlessly.
Around 3:45, there is a flurry of excitement as a car pulls up, laden with fresh vegetables, driven by 89-year-old year old volunteer Nan Hoeflich. Each Thursday Nan drives over to Gaining Ground, an organic farm on Virginia Road in Concord, where the farmers and volunteers pile her car high with the produce of the day. When Nan pulls into the Pantry parking area, a crew is standing by to quickly unload the dazzling array of fresh veggies contributed by Gaining Ground, which donates all its produce to food pantries and meal programs. The photographs can’t do justice to the colorful array of heirloom and cherry tomatoes, eggplant, squashes, peppers, cucumbers (by the zillions, and a real hit with Pantry clients), giant onions, celery, potatoes, and lettuces temptingly arranged on tables.
Nan is in charge now, with Cheryl Pespisa, Karen Caulfield, and Ed Rogalski helping sort the harvest, filling bags with an assortment of produce. Nan has been a big part of the Pantry operation since 2000. She’ll continue bringing the weekly contribution from Gaining Ground until the last harvest in fall. In 2014, her last pick-up was on October 30, with a car full of autumn root vegetables. Nan, a retired chemist and science teacher, started out as a farm volunteer with Gaining Ground years ago, when it was a small operation. Then, as the farm grew larger and produced more and more vegetables, Nan asked if some could be given to the Bedford Pantry. When bending down and picking vegetables became a bit too much for her, Nan shifted to doing the weekly pick-up. She has been a Bedford resident since 1970; working at the Pantry is an important part of her life.
The clock is running down now and it’s nearly 4:30 pm, when the first Pantry clients will come through the line. Many arrive early in the afternoon and wait patiently until the doors open. All is very orderly; each person or family unit takes a number and waits a turn. When folks begin coming though the line, first helping themselves to the plentiful supply of bread and bagels, it’s clear that the fresh vegetables are a huge hit. Many recipients thank Nan profusely, as she sits at the table making sure everyone has plenty (especially of cucumbers) until she responds, in all modesty, “But I didn’t GROW the vegetables.” After her work on Thursdays, Nan drives back to the farm on Friday to return the crates and burlap sacks for re-use.
As the end of the vegetable line, Ed is standing by the storeroom door, offering each individual or family a box of eggs and a package of ready-cooked sausage. Sometimes there are cartons of milk on offer. These fresh food items vary according to the best buys Peter can find at local stores.
By 6 pm, as the giant array of vegetables has dwindled down to a few remainders and all have been served, it’s time to close the Pantry for another week. The volunteers, who have kept the area very neat and orderly during the afternoon, now finish tidying up. Another successful afternoon is over, with 23 family units receiving food. Peter noted that in winter there are often many more coming through the line.
Keeping the Bedford Food Pantry stocked and ready to serve its clients
But – and here is the big “but” – Peter and Kathy Grey’s job doesn’t end when the Pantry closes. Their work goes on behind the scenes and after so many years of managing this operation, they have it “down pat.” Peter is known for his shopping acumen; he studies the weekly grocery store flyers avidly and when he spots a sale on an item needed for the Pantry, he pounces, perhaps buying multiple cases if the price is right. In this way, he makes every financial contribution to the Pantry stretch as far as possible. The Pantry is a 501(c)(3) organization, so all donations are tax deductible.
Help comes in from many businesses, churches, schools and individuals in town. Lane School has its Soup-er Bowl drive in January, which this year resulted in several hundred pounds of non-perishable food donations. When residents leave canned and packaged foods by their mail boxes each May, that collection, organized by the National Association of Letter Carriers, is given to the Pantry. These are but a few of the ways in which Bedford individuals and institutions support the Pantry.
Over the years, various businesses have made substantial financial contributions. Peter says he has been fortunate with Bedford High School students who work for the Pantry as their community service. One young man, now in college, Peter recalls, began his volunteer work in the 7th grade and continued until he finished high school.
Contributions of canned and packaged foods as well as paper goods and toiletries are always welcome. Peter and Kathy are meticulous about checking the “sell by” date on foodstuffs, having researched this question thoroughly. There is a collection bin at the Bedford Stop and Shop and at most churches. Financial contributions may be made through the web site. http://www.bedfordfoodpantry.org/content/donate .Those needing the Food Pantry may fill out an application and upon approval, are granted a client number and a pantry card, good for one year. Details are on the web site: http://www.bedfordfoodpantry.org
How did it all begin???
The back story of how the Bedford Community Table and Food Pantry came into being starts in January 1991. The Grey family had participated in several Greater Boston Walk for Hunger drives and wanted to help out locally. Peter also recalls attending a meeting with several school nurses and other concerned residents who wondered if there was a need for a food pantry in town. Without waiting too long for “officialdom” to act, Peter and Kathy got things up and running, filing papers and calling for volunteers. Within six months, their dream became a reality. For the first six or seven years, the Grey family stored the donations in their basement and did all the sorting at their home. Now the Pantry has a well-established “home” in the Town Center.
Celebrating 25 years of the pantry and Community Table Dinners!!!
The first Community Table dinner took place on September 17, 1991 and as fate would have it, the first dinner this fall will happen on September 17, 2015! The Citizen plans to be there and to write more about the community dinners, which are a story in themselves.