Linda Kean doesn’t believe in fate, but an experience with synchronicity last year still has her smiling. Kean, who is Vice President of Operations and Youth & Family Programs with Jewish Family Service (JFS), explained how that agency benefitted from fortuitous timing earlier in the year. “In April of 2020, I had an inspired idea. I said to our staff, ‘We really need to redesign the food pantry. It’s time to take a hard look at improving operations there — as well as our two satellite locations [the food pantry at Congregation Zichron Eliezer, and the Food Drop Project at The Jewish Discovery Center.]’ And then, just days later, we got this email from the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies (NJHSA) offering capital grants for pantry improvements during Covid, and I said, ‘Are you kidding me? This was meant to be!’”
JFS was awarded the grant. Their Heldman Family Food Pantry, located at the Barbash Family Vital Support Center, has served the community well since 2013, when it moved from the basement of Golf Manor Synagogue to its current location. It has experienced growing pains, however, as needs have increased. The volume of stock the food pantry must handle has expanded, as has the number of staff members and volunteers needed. Further, the pantry was designed to be a stable community resource, not the flexible, modular facility required — and created — during the pandemic. The food pantry grant made change possible.
There was another hurdle to be overcome. Kean explained that the ten thousand dollar NJHSA grant was predicated on assurances that local organizations would commit to donating matching funds equaling twice the seed funding from that grant. The Jewish Federation of Cincinnati’s Covid-19 Relief Fund stepped up. Funded jointly by the Federation, The Jewish Foundation of Cincinnati, Jewish Home of Cincinnati, and donations from community members, the relief fund committed the twenty thousand dollars necessary to push renovations forward.
Cathy Bowers, JFS board secretary and frequent food pantry volunteer, chaired the committee overseeing the enhancements. Bowers shared how her group determined what improvements were necessary. “Once JFS got the grants for the pantry upgrade, our committee brainstormed ideas about how to improve the space,” she said. “We had all been volunteers at the pantry, so we knew what it was like to try to maneuver in a crowded and sometimes awkward space. The staff also had a wish list, which nicely overlapped with ours, so we worked on this together.”
While the recommendations of Bowers’ committee were creative and practical, accomplishing the work and identifying the best options was another matter. Here again, good fortune seemed to smile on the enterprise.
Food pantries frequently maintain close relationships with area supermarkets and restaurants for food items and supplies, and JFS was able to leverage their connection to Kroger, through their Corporate Affairs Manager, Erin Rolfe. Rolfe inked JFS to Kroger’s Senior Regional Construction, Lynn Howitz, who agreed to meet with the committee and staff to share her expertise. “As a space consultant and specialist,” Bowers said, “Lynn was able to recommend smart ways to accomplish what we wanted.” Kean affirmed that Howitz was invaluable to the project. “We paid the contractors to do the work, but Lynn was able to donate her advice and consulting time. It was amazing.”
After eight months of work, the project is now complete, and all three JFS locations have been upgraded. Among a long list of improvements, the food pantry has added an entire aisle of product thanks to a fully redesigned floor plan; Congregation Zichron Eliezer now has larger, easier-to-use food carts; and the Food Drop Project at the Jewish Discovery Center has a new refrigerator and freezer — additions that will allow staff to store larger quantities of perishable food.
“The results are just fantastic!” said Bowers. “The pantry was fully repainted, so it has a nice, fresh feel. And the structural changes allow us to use the space much more effectively. It will be an inviting, well-stocked, well-organized place to come and get food, which will be great for our clients when we reopen for in-person shopping.”
Kean added that the upgraded environment will also be nicer for the people who volunteer and work at the pantry. “The volunteers and other staff members in the pantry will be able to efficiently pack bags for pick-up and delivery, giving them more time to focus on helping shoppers. Our care managers will continue to check in with food pantry clients to see if there are any unmet needs. People experiencing food insecurity are sometimes dealing with other, underlying issues, so we want to do everything we can to learn about those, and then work on a plan to help.”