The Loaves and the Fishes: Feeding the Hungry

It is delivery day and Jim Carroll is playing both traffic cop and cheerleader at a food pantry in Greenville as volunteers help unload and arrange thousands of pounds of items that in a matter of hours will be distributed to needy families in the Smithfield area. Carroll has been volunteering since the pantry was founded 20 years ago by a chapter of the Society of St. Vincent DePaul, a worldwide charitable organization that last year helped 120,000 Rhode Islanders, through food pantries and direct financial aid of nearly a million dollars. Carroll says the need has changed dramatically over the past two decades. Eight years ago, when St. Philip Church in Greenville built a separate building for the food pantry, it was serving 2,000 families a year. That number quadrupled to more than 8,000 this year.

“The perception is that most of the people who come here are out of work, on the system and just looking for free food,” Carroll said. “They assume they’re going to get a can of beans and a thing of pasta and people will hand them food they’ve preselected.”

But here a volunteer is assigned to a client, who twice a month can walk through and choose what he or she needs. And it’s the volunteers who are key to making it all work.

This year the pantry will distribute 200,000 pounds of food on a budget of $17,000. Much of it comes at 10 cents a pound from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank, some is donated by individuals. And there are multiple corporate partners.

Mark Gordon oversees all of the St. Vincent De Paul chapters — or “conferences” — throughout the state. He got involved in 1997 as a parishioner at St. Brendan’s Church in Riverside. And while St. Vincent De Paul — named after the apostle of charity from the 1600s — originated in the Catholic Church in 1833, it is non-sectarian when it comes to those it helps.

“Who we help is defined by the need, not by their religion, their race, their gender or their color. Or their status as immigrants,” Gordon said. “It’s been a lot of the working poor. And now it’s a lot of people who are coming off the unemployment rolls, but who haven’t been able to right the ship in their own finances.”

Gordon says much of the work that goes on is out of the public eye, in the form of one-on-one counseling and assistance.

Kristi Bussler of Johnston heard about St. Vincent De Paul at her church, Mary Mother of Mankind in North Providence. The mother of three was going through a divorce and losing her house to foreclosure. She had a good job, but just couldn’t make ends meet. Then her car was repossessed. Enter Paul Fisette, who heads the St. Vincent De Paul group at Bussler’s church. He and another volunteer met with her more than a year ago.

“I was more scared for her, I think, than she was for herself because it looked hopeless,” said Fisette. “We’re supposed to be there giving hope, but I gotta tell you — it looked bad.”

They eventually were able to help Bussler buy a car and get settled in an apartment just down the road from her old house by helping her with a security deposit. It was just the jumpstart Bussler needed.

Fisette says sometimes a little tough love is involved and with limited resources, the society can’t solve everyone’s problems. In Bussler’s case, he told her she needed to liquidate the house before they could help with a security deposit on the apartment.

The society relies on money it raises through 148 clothing bins throughout the state as well as individual monetary donations and foundation grants. It also holds an annual Friends of the Poor Walk. Last year, 300 walkers raised more than $25,000. This year’s walk is at Gov. Notte Park in North Providence. Kristi Bussler is walking to raise money for others.

Back at the food pantry, Jim Carroll told us he sees little miracles happen every week.

Jim Hummel: Do you ever worry about running out? Or is it like the loaves and fishes?

Jim Carroll: It’s absolutely the loaves and fishes every year. Every year in October I’m sure we’re not going to make it to Thanksgiving and all of a sudden you’ll come to church and the doors will be overflowing with donations.

And Carroll echoes the feeling of many who give their time every week, every month and every year.

“If you’re talking your religion and not living it, other people are going to say, ‘They really don’t believe in it, they’re not practicing what they preach.’ I think what we try to do here is feed the hungry and take care of our neighbors. That what we try to do.”

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