The first pastel wisps of dawn crept over the steeple as Tom Way slipped inside the side door of St. George’s Episcopal Church on Tuesday.
Way joined a handful of volunteers who unfolded seat after seat in a little nook outside the church kitchen, creating a waiting room that would later fit 100 people.
He carried long, rectangular tables from the closet to the room where they would form a semi-circle, becoming a market teeming with crates of fruits and vegetables, boxes of cereal, rice and cake mixes, canned goods, eggs and breads.
That morning, the group of tables would become The Table—a market-style food pantry where clients can browse the selection and fill their bags. For nearly two years, the church has transformed its Sydnor Hall into a market each Tuesday morning.
Church members knew they wanted to offer a different sort of food pantry when the idea first started. They didn’t want clients to walk away with a box of nonperishable goods liked canned beans and boxed noodles. They pictured shopping bags stuffed with fresh fruits and vegetables, people being able to take as much as they needed.
“We thought it would be really, really special because people could choose what they wanted,” said Linda Carter, who helped start The Table.
She and other church members envisioned a market-style pantry, modeled more on farmers markets than food banks. To grow such a program, church members also looked for a more heavenly source of inspiration: the Eucharist.
“Our theology is that everyone comes to that table upstairs hungry for something,” said Carey Chirico, director of outreach ministries for St. George’s. “And it’s the same as the table down here,” she continued, gesturing to the tables in Sydnor Hall.
As volunteers started stacking the nonperishable food on the tables, Way left the church in search of a meal. He headed a few streets over to Fredericksburg United Methodist Church, where a community breakfast for the clients of a local homeless ministry was underway.
After breakfast, Way headed back to St. George’s, arriving just in time to help unload the truck from the Fredericksburg Area Food Bank.
By this time, the handful of volunteers had multiplied. As a half dozen volunteers unloaded the truck, another group was in the kitchen sorting the eggs donated from the food bank. Broken eggs would be turned into casseroles, while whole eggs would be given to The Table’s shoppers—as volunteers call the people who come for food.
Several of the volunteers themselves are also shoppers.
“What we’re doing is so life-giving to people that they want to come back and help,” Chirico said.
Way doesn’t shop at The Table, because he doesn’t have a cupboard to store the food. For the past year, Way has lived in a tent.
Deaf since birth, Way spent 37 years in prison and struggles to find a job. But he has found work at The Table, where he spends nearly 12 hours every Tuesday helping out.
Way learned about the food pantry during a Monday night community dinner five months ago. He didn’t need to use The Table but wanted to lend a hand. So he showed up the next morning. And he arrived just in time, Chirico said.
The shoppers kept coming—and by early fall, the market was feeding more than 1,500 people each month. With food stamp cuts taking effect this fall, those numbers were poised to climb.
The pantry’s organizers knew they needed to expand. A grant from the Honeywell Foundation gave them nearly $30,000 to buy more food, offer an evening market and create a team that would focus on getting healthful food to low-income families.
Way’s help has been instrumental in creating the evening market, Chirico said. He earned an associate degree in baking and pastries while in prison. And he offers tips for how shoppers can use the fresh Japanese squash, kale, kiwi and eggplant, foods they might avoid otherwise.
The tips help shopper Mary Ann Yancy, who takes food home to her 7-year-old daughter, a youngster who prefers plain chicken nuggets and hamburgers to kiwi and kale.
Yancy receives Social Security disability checks, which don’t provide enough money for healthful food, she said. Her rent recently went up, and so did the cost of riding the FRED bus, which she relies on for transportation.
And with the recent government cuts, her food stamps dropped nearly $20 a month. Yancy receives $217 each month in food stamps.
“When it gets below $200, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” she said.
Yancy appreciates The Table—unlike with other pantries, she can come more than once a month. In fact, shoppers are encouraged to return each week.
“You need to keep getting more fresh food,” Chirico told the packed waiting room Tuesday morning. “Fresh food doesn’t last as long as canned food, so you need to keep coming back.”
Yancy was so grateful for the pantry that she became a regular volunteer, taking the FRED bus each Tuesday morning to help.
She joins The Table’s eclectic group of volunteers, where a retired judge rolls up his sleeves alongside an ex-convict, and high school students work with grandparents. The volunteers include students from Stafford High School’s community service club and from Rivermont, an alternative school for students with emotional disabilities. The volunteers vary in age, race, religion and walk of life.
Each morning, a volunteer prays over the food—a prayer always offered in both English and Spanish. But it’s also been given in Swahili and American Sign Language.
But as the ranks of the volunteers have swelled, so have the numbers of those seeking help.
Last Tuesday, The Table served a record number of shoppers, more than 170 in a day. “It’s a little scary,” Carter said.
Shortly after 6 p.m., a shopper took the last leaves of kale, and the other produce was dwindling. The Table usually shares its leftovers with Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site), which hosts the next day’s community breakfast. While cooking the morning meal, church volunteers would turn extra apples into applesauce and blanch broccoli to use later in casseroles.
“It all goes someplace,” Carter said. “Nothing gets wasted.”
But this week, there wouldn’t be so many leftovers to share.
At 6:17 p.m. the last shopper headed for the tables of food. Carter and Chirico held a quick conference to brainstorm ways to meet the rising demand.
Most of the fresh produce comes from the Flores family, who farm in Hague. The Table buys food left over after the weekend farmers markets, for 30 cents a pound. Chirico and Carter talk about finding other farmers, to get more produce. And with winter coming, they need to partner with farmers who have greenhouses, Chirico said.
While the pair conferred, volunteers began boxing up the leftovers. Way led a group of high school students out into the inky night. They headed for Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site), then Way picked up his bag and made his way back to his tent for the night.
Amy Umble: 540/735-1973
WANT TO HELP?
At The Table, each shopper leaves with bags that are about 60 percent fresh produce. One shopper told organizers that her nutritionist referred her to The Table so she could get healthful foods even though she couldn’t afford them. To offer healthful food to a growing group of shoppers, The Table could use more money. To help, contact
St. George’s Episcopal Church at 540/373-4133 or stgeorgesepiscopal.net.