Serving Up Food and Pride to the Hungry

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Food center’s volunteers are also clients

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

Doreen Wohl was surprised to discover another side to the United States when she came here from England in 1953 with the American Friends Service Committee to work with migrant farm workers in Pennsylvania.

“I grew up during the war and the idea of America was that it was the land of milk and honey,” said Wohl, 77. “It came as a real shock but also a very important introduction to the United States to realize that you could exist without realizing there was such poverty.”

Doreen Wohl, director of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger, said she didn’t expect to find poverty in the U.S. when she moved here in 1953.

In 1993, Wohl took over as director of West Side Campaign Against Hunger, an emergency food pantry that started in 1979 in the basement of the Church of St. Paul and St. Andrew on 86th Street and Broadway. Soon after, Wohl instituted fundamental changes to the system.

Instead of distributing pre-packed bags of food to the needy customers, Wohl began setting the food up as in a supermarket and using a point system so that customers could choose what they needed based on household size. Eligible people, those whose salaries fall below the poverty line, are able to come once a month and get enough food for each member of their household for three days.

One day shortly after Wohl started, she found herself shorthanded. She went upstairs to the line of people waiting to receive emergency provisions and asked if anyone was available to help. From then on, the food pantry has used customer volunteers. Wohl sees this as an integral aspect of the West Side Campaign Against Hunger.

“When people first come here, they never expected to have to come to a church for emergency food. They are not feeling good about it,” said Wohl. “But when you invite people to help, they leave and get thanked for helping out. It really changes the dynamic. “

“It’s good to help other people, you know, one hand washes the other. When you walk out, you can hold your head up high,” Sherri Mitchell, 32, said after her first time volunteering.

Most customers volunteer when they come to pick up food, and some come almost every day to help out.

In 2000, Wohl was able to add social services. The campaign now works with about 10 different agencies to provide services in addition to food.

“When people come for emergency food, it’s really the tip of the iceberg,” said Wohl. “People may be eligible for more social services but not know that they are.”

New customers are given appointments with social services and advice on the options available to them. Depending on their needs, they may be given follow-up appointments and attention. In addition to social workers, there are also organizations on hand to provide services such as legal aid, advice on health care, budget counseling and nutrition information.

Chef Mark D’Alessandro teaches a 12-week culinary and nutrition class as part of the Wellness program. D’Alessandro studied at the French Culinary Institute and taught at Le Cordon Bleu before coming to work at the hunger campaign three years ago.

“It is really a team effort,” said Wohl. “The staff and the volunteers all work together to make everything run smoothly.”

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