Fenway food pantry stays afloat in face of pandemic

Lifeboat food pantry volunteer Nansee Ong lays out fruit for sorting. Photo by Hannah Edelman/BU News Service

By Hannah Edelman
BU News Service

They started as a once-weekly food pantry, helping an average of 20 community members each Friday afternoon. Now, they assist 120 Fenway residents twice a week.

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, food distribution centers in the Greater Boston area have faced a major wave of closures. But the Lifeboat food pantry is determined to stay afloat.

“When COVID-19 hit, we had to really think hard about how to be able to keep [Lifeboat] running because we knew it was a time when people would really need this service,” co-founder Melissa Ghulam-Smith said.

The pantry’s current distribution model is a far cry from its methodology upon its founding in the fall of 2017, just one year after the presidential election that inspired it.

Ghulam-Smith recalled the discouragement felt in her church group at Boston Temple Seventh-day Adventist Church in the weeks following the election.

“We started thinking, if we want to see change in our country as a whole, we have to start with our community,” Ghulam-Smith said.

Lifeboat volunteers sort food into individual plastic bags before distribution to clients. Photo by Hannah Edelman/BU News Service

She and her husband, Kevin Smith, began to brainstorm potential volunteer opportunities, including healthcare clinics, after-school programs and clothing drives. It was during this research that she realized just what the Fenway community was missing: a free food pantry.

The couple brought the idea to Orlando Hall, pastor at the Boston Temple, and asked to renovate the church, the oldest building in all of Fenway, and use it as a base of operations. Hall immediately agreed.

“It was something that I felt was missing from our ministry as a church,” Hall said. “[Melissa and Kevin] worked really hard to get it off the ground, and I’m really happy that it’s grown the way it has.”

He described Lifeboat as “more like a food market” than a pantry as, prior to the pandemic, clients were able to select items from an array of donated food based on their own discretion.

“We aspire to give dignity to the community,” Hall said. “We understand our role as service, not as charity.”

Lifeboat receives its deliveries through a partnership with local “food rescue” program Lovin’ Spoonfuls, which collects groceries from stores that are close to expiration or would be thrown away due to excess. It is one of many such programs in the Boston area–and only the first of which would lend its services to Lifeboat in the coming years.

Ghulam-Smith and her husband stressed the importance of providing healthy, non-processed food to families that often do not have access to it otherwise. Even now, after adapting to a socially-distanced model, their distributions include fresh fruits, vegetables and store-prepared ready-to-eat meals.

Fresh fruits and vegetables, donated by local grocery stores and farmers, sits on a table at Lifeboat before sorting and distribution. Photo by Hannah Edelman/BU News Service

“We’ve really been able to make cool relationships with our clients, which is something I didn’t really expect,” Smith said. “Just to be able to meet the need and to know that Lifeboat is something that’s meaningful to them, because it’s something that’s meaningful to us.”

In order to maintain safety during the pandemic, Lifeboat now pre-assembles the bags of food prior to distribution; however, clients are still able to choose from available types of meat and dairy products upon arrival.

“It took a little away from the community feel that we had, but we were just really fortunate to continue to be able to provide food to the community that really needed it,” Ghulam-Smith said.

Their role in the community only grew in importance, she added, once other pantries began to close. This meant Lifeboat had an influx of not only new clients, but also new food distributors, as the pantries they typically delivered to were no longer able to use their supplies. To accommodate these changes, Lifeboat expanded its operations to twice weekly.

Nearby pantries were not the only food sources impacted by the pandemic. With the forced closure of the Boston Public School system, free lunches were no longer available to the students who relied on them.

Ghulam-Smith reached out to BPS in the spring, and since the beginning of June, Lifeboat has made weekly food deliveries to families in the neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury who are unable to physically go to a pantry. They later expanded this delivery service to include the growing number of would-be clients stuck at home due to quarantine or pre-existing conditions.

Orlando Hall, right, helps Lifeboat volunteers assemble the bags of food for distribution. Photo by Hannah Edelman/BU News Service

Increased services also meant increased volunteers, a team of which has been steadily growing since Lifeboat’s founding three years ago.

“It’s been amazing to see the support on this ongoing basis that is hard to expect of people sometimes,” Smith said.

Lifeboat has a core team of six volunteers, and a group of about 10 more who come on a consistent basis. The volunteers, only some of whom are members of the Seventh-day Adventist church, meet early in the afternoon on delivery days to sort through the food and fill the bags as evenly as possible. Hours later, they will bring the food out to the clients, some of whom line up outside the Boston Temple hours prior.

Though they have to wear masks and practice social distancing while volunteering, Hall emphasized the importance of community, not just with those they serve, but also within one other. He explained that he leads the volunteers in a group prayer at each meeting in a demonstration of moral support.

After one such prayer session, in which he asked for strength for a volunteer who, even after losing a friend to COVID-19 the day prior, came to help at Lifeboat, Smith said.

“We told the community we’re going to be here and we’re going to serve them, and no matter what has come on that obligation,” Smith said. “Each one of you are here and therefore each one of you are leaders.”

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