Gifts from Below

Gifts from Below

It was the day before Thanksgiving, and the basement of the Episcopal Church of St. Paul & St. James, a.k.a. the Olive Street Pantry, was buzzing. “Can I grab any volunteers to get the turkeys? I need a whole lot of hands!” a volunteer yelled across the room, drawing several people to the back door past tables and stands of vegetables, fruits and herbs.

The pantry, a joint effort by Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen and Loaves and Fishes, is open Wednesdays from 1:30 to 3 p.m. (and Saturdays from 8 to 10:30 a.m.). But the Wednesday before Thanksgiving is special, with the pantry inviting food-insecure New Haveners to come shop for turkeys and other holiday staples free of charge.

sponsored by

Spend the holidays with The Shops at Yale

“We try to set up like a shopping experience so people feel a sense of dignity,” said Ashley Burkell, who coordinates DESK’s volunteers. The arrangement, which does resemble a small grocery store or, better yet, a farmers’ market, was designed in collaboration with pantry guests. “The image of ‘just get food out to people, it doesn’t matter what it looks like,’ we’re trying to get beyond that. We want to have an experience where people don’t feel bad coming here. It’s bad enough that they have to stand outside in line,” said DESK’s executive director Steve Werlin, acknowledging the long queue that had already formed that morning outside the church’s doors.

Half an hour before this year’s Thanksgiving pantry opened to the public, James Cramer, L&F’s executive director, reached into the air above his bright yellow hat, waving his arms to signal a group meeting. “Whose first time is it here?” Cramer asked the circle of volunteers, prompting about half the group to raise their hands. Cramer asked everyone to choose a station to manage. “Let’s keep it looking nice,” he emphasized.

As the group broke off into various last tasks, one volunteer stationed herself at the turkey table and said, “It’s funny, because I’m actually vegetarian.” Others packed bags of food to give to pantry visitors unable to traverse the church basement steps.

As guests filled the space, moving in a line that wove patiently from table to table, food needed to be replenished frequently and quickly. “How many of these can I have?” one woman asked while holding up a bright green zucchini. Less abundant items had a limit per capita, while others could be claimed to hearts’ content. A younger volunteer checked the produce, tossing away vegetables that were past their prime. Others swept away fallen herbs and greens, delivered boxes of potatoes and cut through red netting for access to small yellow onions. Three kids in puffy coats ran up and down two small wooden ramps, laughing all the way. I was told they do this every week.

All told, the basement was choreographed chaos, with volunteers trading attention between their primary tasks and whatever odd need presented itself in the moment. For his part, pantry veteran Cramer was “on auto-pilot,” as he said to L&F program coordinator Lisa Levy. “She hates when I say that,” he said as she nodded in agreement. Still, he believed, the chaos had a way of working itself out. Refining the visitor experience was important, but getting people fed was the goal above all.

Written and photographed by Lindsay Skedgell.

More Stories