Joan Barber

 

Running two food pantries is not easy, to say the least…When I asked, “why do you do it?”, she responded, “What else am I gonna do?”.

A visit to Ithaca Kitchen Cupboard, where I met Elizabeth and Rob, would not have been complete without talking to Joan Barber, who runs Ithaca Kitchen Cupboard herself.

Rob and Elizabeth had just left, and I was waiting to speak with Joan. She was busy helping a customer with his grocery shopping, and as I stood there, I overheard some of the products that she offered to him – eggs, ground turkey, margarine, hot dogs, “potato or plain rolls for your hot dogs?”, and toilet paper.

I was surprised to hear that customers are offered so many animal products, considering how expensive they are.

When Joan finished helping the customer, she welcomed me warmly into the pantry where the food was stored. On my right were a box holding avocados, eggplants, bananas, and tomatoes, and another box full of acorn squash – real, fresh food.

Joan opened up the refrigerator on my left, and showed me the variety of prepared foods made and donated by a local health food store, Greenstar. “There was even a donated Portobello mushroom sandwich that someone took home. It normally costs $8!”

Next to the prepared foods was another refrigerator, holding countless dozens of eggs. On the shelves, I noticed Lara bars, canned foods, shelf stable milk (“it’s real milk, just pasteurized at a higher temperature”), snacks, cereal, pancake mix, peanut butter, jelly, and oreos. Joan even keeps a supply of soap, toilet paper (“It’s a part of eating!”), diapers, formula, first aid supplies, and feminine products for customers who need them.

Towards the back is a large freezer holding all meat products. Joan herself buys $1,000 worth of meat each week from the food bank (Food Bank of the Southern Tier), and $100 worth of diapers and formula per week.

With the large variety of foods available, Joan emphasized that “people get to choose their foods” –they need to choose what’s going to be good for their bodies. Food choice is a responsibility that even the food insecure need to consider.

As I was looking around, stunned by the diversity of options, I asked Joan how she got involved with Ithaca Kitchen Cupboard.

“I’ve been doing this for 47 years.”

Before working with the food insecure, Joan was a bookkeeper at Gas Electric, where her husband worked. When she was pregnant with their first child, she quit her job, and spent the next ten years taking care of her children. She didn’t have her license at the time, but the month before she gave birth to her youngest (her fourth), she got her license and “was out of the house!”.

Following that, Joan volunteered everywhere. It was a win-win situation, because she “could be home for the bus” afterschool. She pointed to the shelves holding the heavy cans of food: “these are 47 years old, too!” She’s had the, since Ithaca Kitchen Cupboard started in the basement of another facility.

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47-year old shelves

Joan started telling me about Ithaca Kitchen Cupboard’s history, too.

It’s one of many organizations that Area Congregations Together (ACT), a communal, multi-faith non-profit in Ithaca, operates. Each day of the week, different people from different congregations come to help. Every morning, they stock shelves and check the foods’ expiration dates. In the afternoons, they serve customers. Approximately 500 people are served each month, including 200-300 families. Donations come from a group that distributes leftovers from the Ithaca Farmers’ Market, Greenstar, Wegmans, and Tops. Joan even runs another location in Danby – customers can visit each location once a month, and are provided three full days’ worth of balanced meals per visit.

She grabbed a few pamphlets, and gave them to me. In 2015, 6,072 people were served – in other words, food for 54, 648 meals was distributed in one year. This past August, 554 people were served. Ithaca Kitchen Cupboard spent $3,068.30 at the food bank and $502.40 at local stores to provide food and supplies in addition to donated foods. (That breaks down to $0.72 per meal!)

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As Joan explained her work to me, I became more and more awestruck.

Running two food pantries is not easy, to say the least.

Joan takes care of the managerial side, with accounting work, purchasing foods, and budgeting. She inspects food quality daily, even checking everything that comes in for bugs. Bookkeeping is of utmost importance, as well; she showed me all of the forms that must be kept on record. The health department can show up at any time and ask to see two years’ worth of files. If all that wasn’t enough, she also coordinates/trains volunteers and works in the food pantry regularly…all with a smile.

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A list of foods and their respective shelf life

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A guideline that Joan created for volunteers to reference

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Two years worth of records are kept on file
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Meat, poultry, and fish products available that week

When I asked, “why do you do it?”, she responded, “What else am I gonna do?”.

 

Tompkins County faces a 7-million-dollar hunger gap. Through Ithaca Kitchen Cupboard, Joan and ACT are doing some amazing work, and I hope Elizabeth’s, Rob’s, and Joan’s stories move you to help. If you are interested in volunteering or donating to Ithaca Kitchen Cupboard, I highly encourage you to contact Joan at 607-273-7850.

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