Connected \\ December 4, 2020
Nourishing our community
In the early days of this country, the East India Marine Society provided relief to the widows and families of sailors who had fallen on hard times after their loved one went to sea, never to return. When the society formed a museum in Salem, they kept this guiding mission.
Jordan Ortiz Flores. Photo by Jennifer Percy
Now, PEM is offering support to a local organization, in a time of crisis, helping with food insecurity. Prior to last spring, most area residents who needed The Salem Pantry received help about four times per month. Now, thanks to the pandemic and job loss, some people need food assistance several times a week.
Volunteer Mary Spitzer packing produce in the warmer months. Photo by Jennifer Percy.
On a cold December morning, a line formed at The Salem Pantry's mobile market at Salem State University where about 140 people will stop by for food. People waited in the sunshine outside of the theater department’s scene shop, where eggs and fresh vegetables would be distributed from the loading dock and frozen chicken and broccoli from a nearby Salem Pantry truck. College students and some Salem State employees have been gathering here alongside residents of the South Salem neighborhood and beyond.
“This is excellent,” said Michael from Gallows Hill as he waited for basics like bread and milk. “There is no way a lot of people would survive without it.”
In addition, some who have never needed food assistance are seeking out The Salem Pantry after a job loss or a cut back. At first, some are embarrassed by their new situation, but the staff and volunteers put them at ease. “We reassure them,” said Samantha Johanson, the organization's manager of operations. “You have to eat.”
Stacey from North Salem, recently laid off from her job at a hotel in Boston, visited the Pantry’s mobile market for the first time to supplement her regular grocery shopping. When asked if she had difficulty making the decision for food assistance, she said, “I’m kind of over it now. Money is a little tight.”
Just as PEM enriches the soul with art and culture, the museum has committed to nourishing our community. On Giving Tuesday, PEM launched Feeding Community, reaching out to the museum’s passionate members, staff and volunteers to encourage financial, material and volunteer support to help reduce food insecurity in our region. The initiative will continue through the month of December and the two organizations will continue to partner well into the future.
Through the month of December, financial contributions made to either PEM’s Annual Fund or The Salem Pantry will help unlock a challenge pledge of $20,000, generously made possible by Larry and Atsuko Fish, of the Fish Family Foundation. Once each organization receives 200 donations of any amount, the Feeding Community challenge gift will be distributed.
Robyn Burns became executive director of The Salem Pantry in March of 2020, knowing that the 30-year-old organization was crucial to the community in their work to eradicate hunger in Salem and the North Shore. Little did she know how much the need would grow. With record unemployment, The Salem Pantry is signing up 100 new households every month, serving six times more people than normal and anticipates distributing nearly one million pounds of food this year. The organization made about 650 food drops for Thanksgiving that included turkeys, chickens to roast and even gift cards for grocery shopping because the need was so great.
Photo by Kathy Tarantola
There is a real spectrum of folks who are coming,” said Burns. “For some, it’s an add on of support and for others, it’s really dire.
Leading up to 2020, The Salem Pantry was forming a strategy to grow its mobile markets, but the pandemic accelerated that plan and there are now a dozen sites around the city, including local schools, housing sites, Lifebridge shelter and Espacio in the Point Neighborhood. These mobile sites, combined with home deliveries, have provided a monthly average of 75,000 pounds of food (an estimated 62,500 meals) since mid-March.
The mobile market at Espacio. Photo by Samantha Johanson.
Amy Witherbee became a volunteer during the first week of lockdown in March. “It gets me out of the house and is necessary for me not to get frustrated,” Witherbee said from the back of the delivery truck. “Our country has done such a bad job with this. I nearly cried watching a man wait in line at Walgreens with two cans of creamed corn. Why can’t we fix this?”
Salem Pantry volunteers Doug Soons and Amy Witherbee. Photo by Jennifer Percy.
Her husband Doug Soons was helping out with grocery shopping for individuals in the community and joined up with The Salem Pantry as well, putting his six-foot-two frame to use, offloading heavy boxes of frozen food. On this day, Soons fetched a pineapple inside the building for a woman waiting in a fleece hat and jacket. “Just for you,” Soons said from behind his mask.
The couple have been joined by friends from the local community, forming social groups who help out together. “I know 80 percent of these people by name,” said Witherbee, “and they are helping my Spanish improve.”
Volunteers may help out with different levels of interaction, based on comfort level during COVID. There are outfacing opportunities at mobile sites or more contactless jobs like packing boxes, inventory and dropping food items. With the demand for food so dramatically increased, financial support and food donations are also needed more than ever.
Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM
Burns is excited about the increased community support through this very visible partnership with PEM to address the issue head on. On the single day of Giving Tuesday alone, The Salem Pantry took in 82 donations. If there is anything good to come from the pandemic, it’s the effect around destigmatizing the need for food and nourishing the community with dignity, she says. In addition to having volunteers who also benefit from The Salem Pantry, the direct openness about the need is helpful, says Burns. “We really try to make it centered around the guests who are coming and make it a space that is positive and welcoming.”
Robyn Burns moving pallets. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
The sites, which recently moved indoors, have become the epicenter of other services like COVID testing, toiletry distribution and remote learning outreach for public schools. With unemployment assistance unknown, COVID cases rising this winter and the restrictions about the number of people indoors, plus a desire to keep people from forming lines in the cold, operating the mobile markets will feel like “new territory,” said Burns. All of this requires volunteers, as does stocking the new warehouse at Shetland Park.
Working in the warehouse. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.
Last spring, Jennifer Percy volunteered in “a small army” of people unloading delivery trucks from the Greater Boston Food Bank and storing the food in a church on Margin Street. At the mobile market, she enjoys being in the fresh air and helping people carry their bags to their cars.
“I have no idea what anybody’s story is,” she said. “I try not to question. We all know that a minimum wage job does not make enough to live on. There is a range of ethnicities, immigrants, non immigrants. Sometimes it’s families, people shopping for their neighbors, students. You can’t generalize.”
Just then, a young woman with an IKEA bag loaded down with heavy frozen food, struggled to put the bag on her shoulder. “Are you OK?” Percy asked with concern. “That looks heavy.”
Like many who are bolstered by the food they receive, the volunteers are finding nourishment in the act of giving back. Since the summer, Lynelle Santosuosso has traveled from Middleton two days a week to volunteer after losing her job as a corporate travel agent. “I love that Salem and PEM are doing this,” she said. With her kids grown, Santosuosso says volunteering has made her re-think her life. “My job was eight hours a day at a desk. This has been a blessing.”
Lynelle Santosuosso packing bread donated from Salem’s A & J Bakery. Photo by Jennifer Percy.
Want to join the effort? Here’s how you can help:
- Make a donation to The Salem Pantry and/or to PEM’s Annual Fund
- Sign up to volunteer at The Salem Pantry
- Donate non-perishable food items at PEM
- Learn more at: pem.org/feedingcommunity
- Amplify this project on social media using #FeedingCommunity
Editor’s Note: See this recent piece on the Feeding Community partnership between PEM and The Salem Pantry on Boston’s WCVB.
TOP IMAGE: Malcolm E. Robb, Mess hall in Forest River Park encampment following the Great Salem Fire of 1914, 1914. Phillips Library, Salem Streets Collection, Negative #16789.