On this New Year’s Day, we pause to look forward to 2022 with hope.
Hope. We could all use a little. Because 2021 was challenging and difficult for all of us on some level.
But the year had its moments. As the year drew to a close, we caught a glimpse of the best of us a few short days before Christmas. A simple act of kindness and generosity, brought forth by children too young to attend elementary school.
It was a Tuesday morning when two vans from the Early Childhood Center of Greensboro rolled up to UNCG’s Spartan Open Pantry on Tate Street and delivered boxes filled with canned food and dry goods – items gathered by the children and their families.
“We usually do some kind of community give-back project during the holidays with our families,” said Meredith Kasten, director of the Early Childhood Center. “Every year it’s been something different. Sometimes we’ve donated socks to people in need, or we’ve donated to the IRC downtown for the homeless population. This year we decided on a canned food drive.”
The Early Childhood Center, which is affiliated with the West Market Street United Methodist Church, provides daycare for infants through 5-year-olds weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
“We serve a somewhat affluent community for the most part. We’ve gotten more diverse over the years, but most of our families are people who work downtown,” Kasten said. “That’s a lot of lawyers and bankers and people affiliated with the hospital. Our families have always been willing to give back to the community – we just have to say the word.”
And this year, the word was to help the Spartan Open Pantry in the midst of a global pandemic that has stretched resources thin.
The parents in Kasten’s program pitched in. They showed up for days with boxes of food, and some families went grocery shopping specifically for the food drive.
The kids were involved, too.
“We want to make sure we’re doing something to help, and we want to make sure we’re teaching that lesson of helping to the children,” Kasten said. “We want them to learn about giving back and what it means to be a giving person during the holidays – to give something when you might not receive anything back, and the meaning behind that. The kids help bring the cans in and help load up the cars. That way they can see what it means to give back to their community, to help people in need.”
And the need is very real, said Andrew Mails, executive director of the Spartan Open Pantry.
“In the time before COVID-19, we were a large food pantry when we were distributing 300 or 400 pounds of food per week,” Mails said. “Now we give out 1,000 pounds per week, and I don’t think that bell is going to un-ring for a long time.
“The need became more acute during the pandemic. Part of what I love, having been a part of the UNCG family for more than a dozen years, is that we have made a move to being such a diverse university. But as that has happened, we’ve seen higher rates of poverty among our members.”
Even before the pandemic, Mails said, about 34 percent of UNCG students experienced food insecurity at some point during a given year. Somewhere between 300 and 400 students would use the pantry on a long-term basis.
And during the pandemic, the need has grown. One in four students has reported food insecurity every month, Mails said.
“So many of our students are in families where they’re helping their siblings or parents. And many of those students lost jobs during the pandemic,” Mails said. “All the downward pressures of COVID-19 – the job loss, the extra costs – were very difficult on those who were already just getting by. … The need is so much greater now. And the need is more immediate. Some of these students don’t have anything to fall back on. Any reserves they had are fully depleted now.”
The holiday season has been a bit of a reprieve. But it’s temporary.
“This time of the year is usually pretty good for us. Everybody thinks about giving around the holidays in December, which is great,” Mails said. “But then the year starts over, and things move on. So in February and March, that’s when it gets hard. And that’s the same for a lot of different pantries – even bigger ones like Greensboro Urban Ministry. Everybody has a bit of a struggle then, so we try to get enough now to carry us over. But part of the limitation is there are only so many pounds of food we can store at a time. Can you store enough? Right now during break, we’re doing maybe 600 or 700 pounds per week. When the semester starts, we’ll be back at right around 1,000 pounds per week.”
If it sounds overwhelming, that’s because it is. But Mails and his staff rely on the kindness of groups like the Early Childhood Center. They do their best and move on to the next day, the next week, the next month.
“Having a food pantry doesn’t do anything to change hunger,” Mails said. “It keeps a person from not having food tomorrow. But it doesn’t change the underlying system that creates hunger. So producing students who are committed, and who have the tools of understanding to create social change – that’s part of the work that goes on here, too.”
Mails paused a moment, reflecting on the Spartan Open Pantry’s mission and the message of a favorite philosopher.
“To borrow a Mister Rogers term, we see everyone as a neighbor,” Mails said. “We recognize that there is a need. There are people in our community who need to be cared for, and we have the ability to care. We can help. So we do. It would be wrong to have the ability to help and not do it.”
Story by Jeff Mills, University Communications
Photos contributed by the Early Childhood Center of Greensboro