At This Food Pantry, It’s About Customer Service

Customer service plays an indispensable role at the Westside Campaign Against Hunger, the largest food pantry in Manhattan.  Located in the basement of the St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church, this pantry tells its customers, “Come again, please.”  That’s what Stewart Desmond, Executive Director, told me when I interviewed him for a film documentary about the place.

“We invented the supermarket style pantry,” Stewart Desmond told me. “We really try to provide people with staples, to provide you with food that you can use to cook for your family. That’s what our clients want. We don’t have any prepared foods. We aim to be like a store, and that means saying, ‘You’re welcome,’ ‘Thank you for coming in,’ ‘Come again, please,’ ‘How was your weekend?’ Our mission is to help people with food, but once they are here, to try to find other ways to help them beyond the food that might help them to increase the stability of their household, might mean that eventually they are not coming here anymore for food. That’s obviously the dream. So when people come here, they can register for food stamps onsite. We also have a wonderful job placement program and we have our own job training program onsite.”

Nathaniel Griffin, a volunteer, described the experience of first-time customers. “When they come here to shop, they be like, “Wow! This is like a supermarket!” Especially when we are stocked up on Wednesdays. They can come and pick their own food. They can grab their own vegetables. It’s not like, ‘Everything is already bagged up and here’s the bag.’ They can get their own independence. They can say, ‘I don’t want this big potato, I can get a little potato.” Whatever they need.”

“I drove for EMS (Emergency Medical Service) for twenty-three years, Griffin continued. “When I came here, I met the chef and I started training. When I started training, I got real interested in cooking. I wasn’t eating healthy! When you’re riding around in an ambulance twelve or fourteen hours a day, you are eating junk food like crazy! The chef taught me a lot. She taught me how to make healthy food, healthy choices. Chef taught me how to make a mirepoix—25% celery, 25% carrots, 50% onions. That’s the basic stock for soup. The only thing you need is some potatoes in it, some tomatoes in it, put a couple of greens in it, throw a piece of chicken in there, and make you some soup! You’ll be eating good, you’ll be eating real good!”

“For us,” Desmond said, “We will always want to have a system where people can actually pick up things on the shelves, look at them, put them down, because this is what you or I want to do when we go to the store.”

Photo: John C. Goodwin, United Methodist News Service # 118 3.2.2002.

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