THE HISTORY OF NHIFP
NHIFP Founder's speech given at the 25th anniversary celebration:
The history of the food pantry is truly an amazing story with a cast of thousands. It’s a story about statistics and numbers; about hopelessness and despair; about sacrifice, and hard work and commitment; and about redemption and miracles. But above all, I think, it’s a story about how God moves among and interacts with His people. It’s about the sower who went to sow some seed, and as He sowed some seed fell on good soil…
In 1981, two old friends, Marj Luke and Florence Adler, sat talking one day. Both women, nearing retirement years, wanted to do something with their time that would make a difference. As they talked they said to themselves, what North Hollywood needed was a sense of community, and in particular, an interfaith community, which had been missing since the early days of the Vietnam War.
Already actively involved in the work of the Valley Interfaith Council (VIC) whose primary focus was providing emergency food and shelter to those in need, Marj and Florence discussed the idea of starting a food pantry in the east valley.
With the support and under the umbrella of VIC they formed a small task force to determine the feasibility of such a project and see if there were any neighboring congregations who were thinking along the same lines. So they sent out postcards to various congregations, briefly proposing their idea, and inviting anyone interested in brainstorming to a meeting at Marj’s home church, the First Presbyterian Church of North Hollywood.
I’ve often wondered what made me respond to that postcard. The only reason the card fell into my hands in the first place was that I had organized a small food drive here at First Christian at Thanksgiving, and the church secretaries just thought I should have it, I guess. I don’t really know. I certainly had my hands full with two young children and along with my duties as co-director of the Advent Theatre here at First Christian, the last thing I needed was another “thing” but something made me go.
It was late winter on an evening in 1982 when a few of us gathered for the first time in the Fireside room at the First Presbyterian Church. There were five congregations represented that night: Florence Adler from Temple Beth Hillel, Marj Luke from First Presbyterian Church of NH, Eleanor Hirsch from Temple Adat Ariel, Mary Louise Smith from St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church and myself from First Christian Church of NH.
As I sat there that evening wondering what in the world I was doing there, I was slowly captivated by these two remarkable women and the vision they shared.
Using the “interfaith” aspect as a model, they outlined a plan whereby a food pantry could be established, that would be entirely organized, operated and maintained by what they called “participating congregations”. To become a participating congregation, the governing body of that congregation would have to declare formally that they were in favor of this idea, and that they would show their support with volunteers, food, money, prayer, and a representative who would sit on the Pantry Board.
Now, assuming we could get our congregations to participate, there were other challenges in the plan. We would have to find ways to gather the food; we’d need a place to store it and bag it; we’d need a way to transport it; and finally, we’d need a place to distribute it. It was then that I remembered a mostly unused Sunday school room on the corner of our church property, and almost without thinking I offered up the possibility of using that space as a distribution site.
Honestly, I didn’t think at the time it would be any big deal. The few hungry people I had seen come knocking on our church doors were few and far between, so I never thought it wouldn’t be anything but manageable. I’m afraid to admit I was a bit out of touch with reality at the time, but in retrospect I thank God I was otherwise I probably never would have taken the next step. The meeting eventually ended and we each left with our own assignments.
My first step was to lay it all out with Pastor Bob and if I had expected reluctance and skepticism from him, I was in for a great surprise. He was charged by the idea and pledged his support all the way but cautioned me that the distribution part was not going to be an easy sell. That was an understatement. In the weeks that followed Bob and I together talked our way through some pretty heavy board meetings. At times exhilarating, at other times contentious, we as a church family struggled to take a real hard look at ourselves; who we were and what our mission was as a people of faith.
Adding to and complicating the talks were some very loud voices of some of the neighbors who were totally opposed to the idea, fearful that it would bring a “bad element” into the neighborhood.
But in the end, despite all the unknowns and all the what if’s, came the gentle realization that this is exactly what our Lord had commissioned us to do. And so early in 1983, we at FCCNH, took the plunge, voting to become not only a participating congregation of the North Hollywood. Int. Food Pantry, but its first distribution site as well.
Meanwhile, close by, Rabbi Jim Kaufman was dialoguing with Florence, Marj, and Stella Kornberg about the possibility of using the basement at Temple Beth Hillel as a storage and packing site. Marj remembers Jim standing up and excusing himself from the room. When he came back he said something to the affect that he was certain that he could work with his congregation on this and that if we could get the food, we could have the basement to store it in. Jim, like Bob, was on fire with the idea and was determined to move mountains to make it happen.
So now we had a storage and packing facility, a distribution place, and five participating congregations. We were getting there!
It was here that Stella Kornberg entered the picture, my picture anyway. A member of Temple Beth Hillel, I’ve never known anyone quite like her. “No” or “I can’t” was simply not in her vocabulary, so she set out each day in her old station wagon collecting the food stuffs that each congregation had managed to gather, and – with what little donated money we started with – knocked on every grocery store door in town bargaining for the lowest prices in bulk foods. She’d then load the food in her old station wagon and haul it all down to the basement at Temple Beth Hillel, unpack it, sort it, shelve it, and re-pack it in individual grocery bags. She had bags packed specifically for families of two or four, with special care and thought about nutritional value, and she even designed later on, bags for the homeless in particular : cans with pop tops and things that didn’t require cooking.
Meanwhile, Eleanor Hirsch from Adat Ariel, began writing and submitting articles to every newspaper in town. A brilliant woman, she was determined to get the word out. And between her efforts and those of Marj and Florence, busy with community networking, the word began to spread. Marj said she did more talking in those first few months than she did in the whole of her life.
Now, Mary Louise Smith from St Michael’s Church, was a delightful woman full of wisecracking humor and who reminded me a lot of Amelia Earhart, helped me tie up the transportation aspect of it. I’m sorry to say she has since passed away. We had a lot of good laughs in those early years hauling those heavy bags together. But the first time we actually did it, our maiden voyage so to speak, was quite an experience. The church had agreed to let us use the church truck and I remember she and I drove over to Temple Beth Hillel, went down the elevator to the basement, loaded up as many groceries as we could fit on a cart, hauled them back up the elevator and unloaded them onto the truck.
Of course we had to repeat this process four or five times at least until the truck was full. Then we drove back to the pantry where we unloaded all the bags and stacked them neatly on the newly built shelves, where they would be ready for distribution. In the early days we only had to make that trip every three days or so. Eventually, teams were organized to handle the hundreds of bags that were needed to keep the pantry supplied.
Everything finally seemed to be in place, and in March of 1983, the North Hollywood Interfaith Food Pantry opened its doors for the first time.
…and nobody came, at first.
I remember we even had time to wash the pantry floor every week as we waited for clients. But sadly that didn’t last long, as Marj and Florence’s talking and Eleanor’s writing began to pay off, if you could call it that. For soon they did come; at first little by little and then in droves. Lines formed around the block creating new problems, but even as problems arose, and they did, as Florence remembers it, there was always someone there to help solve the problem or pick up the task.
”It is amazing to me,” she said “what can be created by working together in community.
Not only did the Food Pantry impact a community but it impacted greatly those lives who participated in it.” A sower went to sow some seed, and as he sowed some seed fell on good soil… Since 1983, there have been literally hundreds of volunteers whose hands and hearts have faithfully tended the garden, a garden that began as just a seed. But by God’s almighty hand the seed was scattered and took root in other hearts and minds where it grew and bore fruit.
Now there are ten participating congregations who diligently work together to keep the pantry doors open. We may not think of the pantry as a garden, but to those thousands who have been sustained and nourished by its bounty, it is indeed an oasis in the desert.
Florence said to me recently that the goal of the food pantry was and always has been, to put ourselves out of business. Sadly, that still has not happened and in fact, it could be getting even worse as food prices continue to soar. But we are not deterred nor are we discouraged by the job yet before us because we are a community built upon faith, and where there is faith, there is nothing that can’t be achieved.