Pay It Forward: That none may go hungry

That’s the guiding principle of the Homer Community Food Pantry, and it’s a good one. But the role of the food pantry in the community goes beyond feeding the hungry.

I began volunteering at the tail end of 2019, the same week I retired from a career as a science educator. I had been working across the hall from Thomas McDonough, who was at that time the food pantry board president and, in short, he recruited me.

Mondays at the pantry are a choreography of motion. Upward of 30 volunteers set up tables, bring in case after case of canned food, arrange a small mountain of bread and bakery goods, sort through donated produce, open cases of apples and bananas, plunk down 50-gallon bags of onions, carrots and potatoes, build sandwiches for the outdoor free fridge, and fill a cooler with donated fish or roadkill moose generously processed by McNeil Canyon Meats.

But Monday’s routine is only possible because of the behind-the-scenes folks who, throughout the week, collect and organize food donated and purchased from Safeway, Save-U-More, Cole’s, and the Farmer’s Market. Our volunteers are a cross-section of Homer, with little old ladies in tennis shoes like me and a handful of retired men, but lots of younger people too. We’re drawn to the food pantry out of a desire to help others. No doubt, some of us have been blessed with financial security and want to give back to our community. Others remember lean times in our own past. Some still struggle. We’re like a family that way, accepting of one another despite our differences because we share a common goal — we’re here to provide for the hungry. Once we hang up our coats, we hustle to get everything done so that come 12 p.m., we’re ready to greet the folks who come to shop.

Each month, an average of 950 people line up for food at the pantry, including some 290 seniors and 65 veterans. In all, around 10% of the residents within the greater Homer area are food insecure. I’m always touched by the thanks we receive when we hand out local produce, or boxes of cereal and shelf-stable milk to a mom with kids in tow. I know it’s not easy for people to ask for help. Years ago, as a single mother, I relied on the peanut butter, blocks of Velveeta cheese, and Cheerios I qualified for as a food-stamp recipient. I still remember handing over coupons at the grocery store checkout line and seeing condescension on the face of a man behind me. At the food pantry, we aim to do better.

While food may be our primary emphasis, we also offer emergency services for people needing help with things like heating oil, taxi vouchers or rent assistance. Our resources are limited, but we attempt to bridge the gap, keeping families in their homes and making sure they have a way to get to work.

The need often exceeds our resources. But, as we did when COVID created challenges we couldn’t have foreseen, we adapt. Earlier this year, when the State of Alaska failed to process Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program claims for several months running, we were fortunate enough to procure emergency funding through the Homer Foundation. With those funds, we purchased breakfast items for school-aged children, ensuring that Homer kids had full bellies before heading into their classrooms.

If the food pantry sounds like something you’d like to be part of, we are always in need of new volunteers. Show up on any Monday between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. We’ll welcome you warmly and put you to work!

Jessica Shepherd is board president at the Homer Community Food Pantry.