A Brooklyn church temporarily shuts down its hunger ministry in order to sustain it
The food -- and the system -- have improved since Greenpoint Reformed Church took a break and revamped its hunger ministry. Photo courtesy of Greenpoint Reformed Church
Closing the food pantry and meal program for two months allowed staff and volunteers at Greenpoint Reformed Church to reorganize and professionalize its hunger ministry.
On a recent Wednesday evening in Brooklyn, diners streamed in for the weekly meal at Greenpoint Reformed Church. Dozens of guests, many elderly, grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down to wait while volunteers put the finishing touches on the evening repast in the kitchen.
One worker tossed a mound of kale with orange marmalade dressing while her salad partner chopped organic apple slices to uniform perfection. Giant trays of meatballs were pulled from the oven, making room for the garlic bread going in. The first course -- a steaming kettle of potato leek soup -- was carried to the serving table, where four volunteers were at the ready with ladles and tongs.
“This is the best meal in town,” said Jayson Conner, a longtime volunteer at the Greenpoint Hunger Program, who was directing traffic and making sure that everyone got a plate before he started eating his own meal.
But that wasn’t always the case. Six months ago, the Greenpoint Hunger Program was struggling for survival -- a victim of its own success. Overwhelmed by the rising tide of clients, the staff and volunteers were pushed beyond capacity.
They scrambled for funds and worried about running out of food. Some weeks, they had nothing but tomato paste to hand out to food pantry latecomers. And while a small but committed army of volunteers continued to show up week after week, the cracks in the system were deepening. There was bickering in the ranks, among clients and volunteers.
Near the breaking point, the Rev. Ann Kansfield decided to take a radical step: shut down the hunger ministry for two months to reboot and rethink the program. It meant angering some volunteers and turning away hundreds of hungry people. But, Kansfield said, things couldn’t go on the way they were.
“We started as a band of people in a church, and the program was small enough for us to manage,” said Kansfield, who has served as pastor at Greenpoint Reformed Church since 2003. “But it wasn’t scalable.”
Trying to meet community needs
Shortly after Kansfield took up residence above the church, people started ringing her doorbell, asking for food.
A predominantly working-class Polish neighborhood, Greenpoint is not an obvious location of food insecurity, but many of its elderly residents have a hard time making ends meet.
“Greenpoint has a 36 percent poverty rate,” Kansfield said. “Some of the elderly residents have to choose between buying medicines or buying food.”
And although it is just across the river from midtown Manhattan, the neighborhood is fairly isolated. The only subway line that serves Greenpoint is the G train, the only line in all of New York City that does not enter Manhattan. There is also limited access to social services.
So when the church received an anonymous grant to serve the neighborhood, they decided to start a weekly soup kitchen and food pantry. The Hunger Program was launched in 2007.
In one sense, the program was wildly successful. Clients poured in after the recession hit in 2008, followed by Hurricane Sandy, which took a heavy toll. Within the first four years of the program, the number of people coming to the pantry doubled every year.
“We started as a small church thinking we’d be feeding 25 people, but before we knew it, we were serving up to 800 every month,” Kansfield said. “I had to figure out a way to feed them.”
Greenpoint Reformed Church was overwhelmed by the needs of its community, yet it responded by doing less. Would your organization respond in the same way? Why or why not?
But the escalating number of clients overwhelmed the loosely organized, ragtag system, and the lack of rules for volunteers and clients added even more stress.
“When you are a church, you often feel like you have to say yes to everything,” Kansfield said. When certain clients asked for more food or visited the pantry when it wasn’t their appointed day, for example, some of the volunteers would oblige them -- a practice that was noticed by those who did not get special treatment.
“We were crying out for boundaries,” Kansfield said.
In addition, the chef who made the weekly meal committed suicide, a devastating loss that the Hunger Program volunteers did not have time to process and mourn. The vacancy she left -- together with stretched funds and declining morale -- had an impact on the quality of the food.
The joy of meeting a need disappeared, replaced by stress. Kansfield found herself hating to be around the church on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when meals and food were distributed.
Stopping in their tracks
Kansfield made some changes that eased the situation. Hiring a part-time seminarian brought some relief. They scaled back food pantry visits to one Thursday a month, rather than weekly -- a practice many pantries follow. That offered some breathing room, but it did not last long.
In the spring of 2016, the seminary student was moving on. That gave Kansfield and her team the opportunity to draft a job description for the program manager -- something they had never done before -- and think about the skills they needed to bring more order to the program.
They found a capable candidate in Joan Benefiel, a local sculptor with an eclectic résumé and applicable skills.
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But hiring a new manager was not enough to fix a broken system. Kansfield gathered her volunteers and announced they would be closing down for two months over the summer.
“We called it a working sabbatical,” she said.
After giving two weeks’ notice, they closed in June. Some of the volunteers were angry and left the program. Others -- like Conner -- were distraught.
“It nearly killed me,” said Conner, who is so involved in helping the community that he’s learned some Polish to communicate with clients who do not speak English. But he was among those who rolled up their sleeves and tried to figure out how to make the program sustainable.
Kansfield, for her part, tried to keep volunteers in the loop as much as possible.
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They had plenty of work to do during those two months off. They cleaned out the kitchen and got it up to code. They installed locks on the cabinets -- not to prevent theft, but to keep people from depositing their discarded goods and adding to the clutter. They visited other food pantries and investigated best practices. They drafted volunteer guidelines.
They found a professional chef on Craigslist, who volunteers every Wednesday, creating an impromptu menu with the goods at hand.
“We made a list of what we wanted to change. We wanted rules. An orientation for volunteers. We wanted everyone -- clients and volunteers -- to obey the rules; we wanted to adopt an inventory process; we wanted to treat people fairly but not be pushovers,” Kansfield said.
Benefiel was grateful for the time she had during the reboot to visit other pantries throughout New York City. They received a $25,000 grant in January, which helped provide a financial cushion for the project.
When she spoke to their program managers and told them about Greenpoint’s temporary closure, many of them were actually jealous, she said. Jealous of the time to think.
“Once you are in the middle of things, it is hard to stop and take a look at what you are doing,” Benefiel said.
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Do you anticipate that you will face the issue of scaling one of your projects? If so, how could you address it before you reach the breaking point?
“Failure stories can be more instructive than success stories,” he said. “Stopping in your tracks is a good idea to do some strategic thinking and planning -- a very sound way to approach it.”
Changes bring order to chaos
One of the changes Benefiel introduced was a digital inventory and registration system.
To receive food, clients give their name, address and age. While visitors do not have to show need in order to get food assistance, the new system does keep track of the frequency of visits as each guest checks in.
And to avoid favoritism, the system separates clients from those who fill the orders. With the system’s mobile app, pantry guests are able to shop digitally, making selections on a hand-held screen.
Another important element, Benefiel said, was keeping the barriers to service and volunteering low.
“Some organizations spend an hour on intake with one client, while others take a name and that’s it,” she said. “We are on the less-invasive side, and I wanted to keep the same approach.”
But the working sabbatical was not without repercussions. The program lost volunteers, as well as donors. They had to pull out of their CSA membership for the year, losing access to that weekly source of fruits and vegetables.
There have been plenty of bumps in the road, Kansfield admits with characteristic good humor. A week after the digital system was introduced, for example, a glitch in the app sent food pantry volunteers scurrying to fill orders.
“You fix one vulnerability and you expose the next one,” Kansfield said, with a laugh. “You think you’re going to change everything with this one fix, but then … wait, there’s more!”
Clients slowly return
When the Hunger Program reopened in August, it had far fewer clients and volunteers than it had earlier in the year. By October, they were cooking weekly dinners for around 60 people, and more of the regulars were starting to come back.
Conner believes that that number will continue to rise as word gets out around the neighborhood. He was among the first volunteers to return when the program reopened.
“I was so happy, I cried,” he said, during one of the recent evening meals, where he was greeting all the guests and making sure they had enough to eat. “These are my people.”
Across the hall from where Conner was helping with the evening meal, Benefiel was in the sanctuary getting ready for the food pantry the following day. A band of volunteers was sorting sacks of onions, potatoes and carrots. Bins of rice occupied the front rows of pews, while boxes and bags of fruits and vegetables filled the back ones.
In spite of the occasional snag, Rob Dorler -- a volunteer at the food pantry since February -- said he thought everything was more orderly under the new system.
A resident of the community, Dorler has been with the Greenpoint program since before the reboot, and he thinks the decision to shut down was sound, even if the transition wasn’t worry-free.
Three months in, Kansfield thinks that everyone -- staff, volunteers and clients alike -- is thankful for the change. And new volunteers continue to pour in. But more importantly for Kansfield, her sense of joy in overseeing the Hunger Program has returned. “I love being around on Wednesdays and Thursdays now,” she said.
“I never would have thought that managing a soup kitchen requires every last ounce of skill and brains that I have,” she said. “It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”