It's tough to feed the spirit until you've taken care of the body first.
When a network of 14 neighborhood congregations joined forces last year to tackle hunger and homelessness along the Ponce corridor, one of their first acts was finding new ways to feed people in need.
So was born the Intown Food Pantry, where anyone can come for a week's worth of healthy food.
Each congregation in the Intown Collaborative Ministries – the pantry's parent group, a spiritual collective serving zip codes 30306 and 30307 – provides funding and volunteers.
As the pantry grew ever more successful, serving thousands of families and distributing several thousands of pounds of groceries, the program has added two food coops and plans for even more.
Now, every week, the historic churches along the Ponce corridor serve up more than just meals.
On Saturday mornings, the Fellowship Hall at fills slowly.
The volunteers get there first, to set up tables and chairs, organize paperwork, and prepare for that day’s clients.
A few take up residence near the entrance, clipboards and reservation lists in hand.
As guests file in – older men with ball caps pulled down snug, working mothers with a child or two in tow, women who could be your grandmother, hair pinned neatly back – they stop briefly before grabbing a seat to wait for someone to call their name.
When he does, they get to meet volunteer and Pantry Leader Gene Lewis, who took on the creation of the pantry and coop with other key volunteers and came up with the systems that have made both so successful. A semi-retired engineer and member of St. John's Lutheran, he's tall and sturdy with a smile that lights up his face and a raspy laugh that puts folks at ease.
“You live over in Booth Towers?” he asks the older gentleman who's just taken a seat.
When he nods, Lewis somehow manages to smile even more broadly.
"Good news!" he says. A new food coop is being considered for Booth Towers, he explains, which is even better than the food pantry. All the food is free, paid for by Intown Collaborative Ministries. Members pay a $10 handling fee each month which covers transportation and expenses and get between $60 and $70 of food twice-a-month, including meat, vegetables and – as often as possible – fresh produce, courtesy of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.
The man is interested and asks when it starts.
"We’re still working that out," Lewis says, but we'll let you know when it's close.
“Anything in particular you want today?” he asks. “Soup? Canned vegetables?”
He checks off each item on the man's "Guest Profile" that gets a “yes.”
“Black beans or pinto?”
“Yes.” Also, canned meats, rice, dried beans, pasta, sauce, cereal, peanut butter and jelly, condiments, snacks.
No thanks to pastries, though.
“We got a lot of both this week," Lewis tells him. "Sure you don’t want any pastries?”
“Ok,” the man says. “Yes.”
Lewis hands him the list.
“You’ll sign for me right there,” he says. “They’ll call you soon.”
As the man returns to his seat, Lewis shouts in the direction of the next clump of volunteers: “Runner!”
They fill the order from the kitchen's storeroom, and call his name when his bags are ready.
"We take care of the people who you think would be in need," Lewis says, in the brief gap between that day's 20-30 guests. "Plus a whole other group of people you wouldn't know about."
You can't walk or drive down Ponce without encountering the homeless, who only make up 15 percent of the pantry's clients. What I didn't know was how many folks in need don't stay in plain sight. Like the working mom with two special-needs kids and a lot of extra expenses or the Cabbagetown retiree caring for her disabled husband and son, or the retirees who live at Booth Towers or Briarcliff Summit, squeaking by on disability payments, Social Security and food stamps. Any elderly or disabled resident who can't visit the pantry can get food delivered.
For all of them, the pantry has made a huge difference.
“Getting food from us is the same as going to Kroger or Publix,” he says, “We tell our families, ‘purchase what you buy for your families, and just get a little extra.' ” They can't ever have too much canned meats, beans and sauces; pasta and rice; peanut butter and jelly, condiments and juice. The pantry's website runs an updated list of what's most needed each week, and details how to donate money or groceries.
But please, Lewis says, just shop for the pantry while you're shopping for your family.
"Do not go clean out your pantry and give us your expired food or that extra can of cherries you didn't use last Thanksgiving," he says. Donate what they need – which, for homeless clients, means, "anything that has a pop-top can."
* * *
Briarcliff Summit, the grand high-rise at the corner of Ponce and North Highland, is home to ICM's first two food coops.
Some 200 residents between the age of 22 and 82 (with most somewhere in between), many of whom are on fixed incomes, live here.
With strong support from and , the Intown Food Cooperative started here in April, says Rodney Rawls, the building's service coordinator.
"A lot of our members had signed up for the pantry," he says. "But this is different. It's basically like a club – $7 to join and then $10 a month" for twice-monthly food deliveries, paid for by ICM. As food stamps have been cut, he said, some residents were only getting $16 a month – so the food coop has really helped.
Coop meetings (and food deliveries) are on the second and fourth Thursdays of the month. This past Thursday, residents started filing into the community room around 10 a.m. Most carried something for toting groceries: big-wheeled shopping carts that fold; oversized rolling luggage; heavy-duty canvas shopping bags with thick straps. A few set their stuff down in a chair to help set up the room, arranging long folding tables end-to-end near the kitchen and in L-shapes in two smaller rooms down the hall.
The new coop is still figuring out how to manage and organize themselves, but even after only a few months, volunteers say, they can see leaders starting to emerge.
One resident, who used to work in a food bank, walked around with a clipboard and the sign-in sheet. She reminded her fellow members loudly they couldn't pick up food without a nametag, and couldn't get a nametag without signing in.
White tags in plastic pockets hung off bright red cords in a box on the kitchen counter. They were divided into two groups – an Alpha and a Beta – to make moving through the small circuit that much quicker.
"If you're picking up food for someone else," she yelled over the conversational din, "sign your name next to theirs on the sheet and wear their nametag too."
Resident Betty Jo Willis was a blur of activity, repacking eggs from boxes into cartons, organizing that week's food on various tables, and making sure everyone got what they needed.
Kevin Murdock, who moved into the high-rise in February, says he joined the coop as soon as he heard about it.
"It's working well," he said. "I'm trying to encourage others to join. It helps your food dollars stretch – I haven't been disappointed yet."
Lewis, who lives in Stone Mountain, works with the coop's selection committee to prioritize what its members want from the Atlanta Community Food Bank's list of items – and arranges for the groceries to be delivered. He ran Thursday's meeting, introduced the seven new members who'd joined, and announced the good news that Briarcliff's two coops were now full, with 25 members each. Once enough people sign a waiting list, he said, they'd start a third. But his goal is to help the coop become independent.
"We're still learning how to work together," he told the group, after straightening out one of the morning's confusions. "Eventually, folks, I don't even want to have to come here. There will just be a delivery."
However, he added, lest anyone misunderstand what he meant, "I have enjoyed working with you. I know this is going to be successful."
With a little more practice. And, Lewis added, that's the point. The congregations are here to coach, he said, to empower residents.
Brad Schweers, ICM's director, said the group also provides MARTA assistance and a case manager for area residents in need.
"We believe that a healthy neighborhood is one where residents, businesses, faith communities, and non-profits, come together," notes the group's website, "to serve each other for the benefit of all."
Or, as Lewis puts it, "We're church. We need to love these people. They are our neighbors in need."