Maria Valdez, Hunger Volunteer

Maria Valdez, 22, is a volunteer at the West Side Campaign Against Hunger headquarters in the basement of the Church of Saint Paul & Saint Andrew United Methodist Church. She was born in the Dominican Republic, raised  in the Bronx. Valdez attended and was graduated from Siena College in Loudonville, NY, is fluent in Spanish and English and discussed working at  WSCAH, a food pantry that services 1,298,089 meals to 18, 121. .

Interview by Valentina Gonzalez

Foremost, the reason I decided to volunteer at West Side Campaign Against Hunger is because of the core mission the pantry supports which is in service of others. WSCAH’s mission is to not only providing food, but to provide quality food that is fresh. The supermarket style pantry implemented by Doreen Wohl, who was the executive director of WSCAH, goes a step further to provide dignity and respect to individuals who step into the safe environment and busy threshold of the WSCAH good pantry.

I have never gone without food. However, this was in part because my family had food pantries as a support system. There were instances throughout my youth in which my family fell on hard times, and my parents would make the commute to a local pantry to provide a home cooked meal. When I was a little girl I came to this pantry, WSCAH. It’s funny, my parents tell me the story of how I came to WSCAH as a child the place I am now employed and volunteer. Granted, there were other food pantries that my parents went to, WSCAH being one of them. Part of the passion I feel for food scarcity is that I have first-hand, intimate awareness that families do rely on food pantries to make it through difficult times.

We went to the pantries to get food for ourselves, but also sent back some of the food to the D.R. (Dominican Republic).  We shipped food that we didn’t necessarily enjoy–wasting food not being an option–but we also gave food that we enjoyed as well because we understood that we had extended family members who were also in need of nutritional assistance as well as other forms of assistance.

Although my nuclear family has since left the D.R., we still remain connected to our cultural roots. During the holidays, specifically Thanksgiving, of course we have turkey, but being Dominican my mother also cooks pernil, a traditional roasted pork popular in Latin cuisine. Although food insecurity was present, a love of food was nonetheless cultivated if not an even greater appreciation for food developed.

While many cultures tend to assimilate to American society as a form of survival, food was a way back into the D.R. Despite the physical distance I feel closer to my native country’s culture because my mom prepared foods in a Dominican style were present at home. Sometimes I think that the more time I spend away from the D.R. the worse my Spanish gets. I know that many of the patrons at WSCAH are either immigrants, children of

immigrants and minorities who also speak Spanish. I speak to them in their native tongue which I believe adds another layer of intimacy, dignity, and interconnectedness.

Although I am still starting to make my way at WSCAH, I would love to see myself taking on a bigger role. At the moment, I perform dual role. working both in office through data entry, interacting with organizations that come in to support WSCAH’s efforts, interact with volunteers and patrons. The most rewarding aspect of my job is being able to interacted with people checking up on, reassuring them, making sure things are good and happy. The little everyday moments and interactions are important, the ability for people to come to the food pantry and be able to say, ‘oh wow I know her… oh that’s cool hi, Maria’ and I am able to respond with a grin on my face because I am happy to see that they’re here getting the help that they deserve. On the flipside, I help out on the floor, through restock and guiding volunteers who need more supervision as they adjust to the process.

At WSCAH we provide many services outside of the food pantry including social services, health, and chef training classes. One of the services includes the Mobile Mart which I have worked at as well. On the outside it is basically a food truck from which would be a correct assumption to make, however, this food truck runs differently in that it is free. There’s a point system which ensures that everyone gets the right amount of food given their family size doled out in an impartial manner. The Mobile Mart is year-round and doesn’t shut down when colder weather hits so that we never restrict access to food. The Mobile Mart is fast paced, I am on my feet for hours, but the work I do is always so rewarding because I know I am making a difference every time I connect with another person.

We give people membership cards and then allow them to swipe their cards, which is later input in a database to keep track of people who have come to pick up food This system allows people to come get their food in a way that feels atypical of the manner a normal food pantry is run and in way goes further to promote human dignity and care. Although it is a food pantry the thing that sets us apart is the supermarket style model which we have helped to implement in other food pantries.

Overall, there is a lot to do, but everyone is friendly and I try my best to make sure volunteers are comfortable and happy, I never want them to have a negative experience when it comes to giving. We have social services in place to make sure our customers are set all around, with whatever they need going beyond nutrition. Some pantries will just give you a box and then send you on your way, we give people the chance to pick their own food, to choose food preferences, accommodations to dietary restrictions or sensitivities, as anyone would while shopping at a supermarket, however there is never any exchange of money.

I have seen real gratitude that comes out of this process. This could be an overwhelming experience for anybody, sometimes the point system can be daunting if one is new to WSCAH, which is why volunteers around to ease and assist the process.

I am a firm believer that you have to have good energy, if you have good energy and you put that out there you’re going to get that back. It’s always good to be positive.

The direction I see WSCAH going in is always improving and blossoming. WSCAH has been around for 39 years, however, I would note that the original WSCAH and WSCAH you see before you today are not the same which I give credit to the supermarket style food pantry model.

Lastly, having a positive experience is so important when it comes to reaching out for support at WSCAH because when people do reach out they are often met with shame and feel badly for doing so. My philosophy when it comes to asking for help is that there should be no shame and there should be no one shaming you.

These interviews were by Fordham University students in Prof. Chris Rhomberg’s Fall, 2018 Urban Poverty class on behalf of Labor Arts and the National Writers United Service Organization.

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