'A volunteer! A volunteer! Get someone from the bagging table."
A woman rushes out from the pantry. They are short on helpers inside the pantry to assist clients with their red plastic baskets. I'm standing in the bagging line, linebacker style, ready to pack the next shopper's groceries and say, "You have a blessed day." For me, it's a brief idle moment in a tornado-style Saturday morning.
I'm at Micah 6, a food pantry at University Presbyterian Church on San Antonio Street. The pantry, operated by a consortium of University of Texas-area churches, is open for exactly one hour on Thursdays and one hour on Saturdays. Named after a Bible verse promoting charity toward others, the pantry creates a market atmosphere for its clients, who must meet eligibility standards set by the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas to shop here.
Fresh fruit, pasta, baby food, frozen ground beef and blueberries, cans of meatballs . The food comes from grocery stores, private donors and the food bank. An hour before the shoppers arrive, the shelves are fully stocked. A minute after they leave, the shelves are all but barren.
Many of the clients at Micah 6 are regulars. They put their reusable bags on a shelf outside the pantry to reclaim as they exit and know whom to ask for help with heavy loads.
I've been dispatched from the bagging line to the pantry. Inside, I assist a woman with red spiky hair, a yellow "Texas" T-shirt and a back problem. Her basket is already the weight of a fit kindergartener and she's not even halfway through the pantry.
Would you like some spaghetti sauce? Some noodles? What about whole-wheat pasta, one bag or two? Yes, yes, and, of course, two.
The shoppers file in, some with helpers, some with their spouses. They choose from plastic cartons filled with amber shallots, bright orange carrots and tiny oranges. Volunteers scoop out the allotted amount into each shopper's bin. Most shoppers came away with a few blue boxes of Rice Krispies cereal, several cartons of concentrated orange juice and a box of Ritz crackers. As long as shoppers can fit an item into their arms or their one red basket, they can take it with them. With the neon lighting and well-stocked shelves, the Micah 6 Food Pantry is a full-sized grocery store shrunken to fit into two rooms.
As the client and I round the corner in the pantry, we negotiate which loaves of bread she should bring home. She decides on a fluffy French loaf and a nutty pre-sliced loaf. Her eyes are already on the jam-filled cookies ahead. We inch forward in the line. She nods yes and yes as the volunteers offer other food, but only the cookies matter.
The cans and boxes weigh down the basket. I watch as other volunteers slide overflowing baskets along the floor with their feet. I copy them. A bag of noodles tumbles out. I pick the basket back up. The cookies! A volunteer hands the shopper a plastic box full.
"Can I have another?"
"But you're only allotted one," the volunteer says as she slides another box into our basket. The shopper smiles.
We triumphantly move toward the frozen-food section. The limited meat supply for this Saturday is already gone. We load up on orange juice instead. As we leave the pantry, I waddle under the weight of the basket.
"He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
— Micah 6:8
A little more than six years ago, nine churches near the University of Texas came together to support one another's outreach projects. University Baptist Church had a jump-start project, Manna, to help feed the hungry. The churches focused on that project. The new group was guided by a concept developed a few years earlier by the National Council of Churches of Christ to bring churches together to serve, following the guidance of the Bible verse Micah 6:8.
In the summer of 2004, Micah 6 was incorporated as a nonprofit organization. As time passed, the group grew to include regular volunteers from non-affiliated churches as well as people from the community. In its first year of operation, the organization's Web site reports, Micah 6 served 9,600 households and 17,329 individuals.
The groups' most recent figures are from 2009, the most financially challenging year yet. The economy forced some clients to seek aid for the first time. In 2008, the pantry served an average of 200 new shoppers each month. By 2009, that average rose to 330.
"We ended up keeping the pantry open for a little longer each time in order to serve everyone," pantry director Linda Williams said. "We were open for one and a half hours instead of the usual one hour each time we were open for almost two months. It just took longer to run that many people through the shopping area."
Due to a need for more space, the pantry also moved to the basement of the University Presbyterian Church a bigger space than at University Baptist. The organization ordered more food from the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas to cover the increased need.
"We increased weekly poundage on our orders from 10,000 pounds to 14,000 pounds per week for several weeks, which allowed us to still have enough food as our recipient numbers almost doubled," Williams said.
Williams buzzes around the Saturday before Easter. At 9:25 a.m. she is needed in several different places at the same time. There is grumbling among the volunteers, who have been there since 9 a.m., that not enough helpers will show up today because so many regular helpers have gone home for the holiday. Preparing for the morning's pantry is a race against the ever-ticking clock to be stocked and stationed for the shoppers at 10:30 a.m.
Williams became pantry director in 2009. She began volunteering at Micah 6 nearly five years ago during the initial volunteer trainings. The former Austin Independent School District science librarian was nearing retirement when she was offered the pantry position.
On this Saturday as on others, new volunteers are welcomed and instructed to fill out a form after signing in and getting their name tags. Williams hugs and says "hello" to returning volunteers. Some move potato sack-sized bags of frozen, uncooked bagels to the shopping freezers. Bulging purple bags of frozen blueberries are similarly transported from fridge to freezer. It's a job that needs to be completed sooner rather than later, before the boxes of thawed blueberries create a sticky mess.
Women from the University of Texas Delta Xi chapter of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority arrive a few at a time. They are working the food pantry this morning to complete their monthly group service project. Williams leads them on a quick tour of the facility.
"They're going to come out right here," she indicates with a toss of her hand, "and bag right here." She pauses and searches faces for raised eyebrows or concerned faces. "Any questions?"
Ready for the crunch
In the 30 minutes leading up to the pantry opening there isn't a lot of conversation. Overloaded Randalls and Walgreens shopping carts are hauled into and out of the pantry area. Volunteers dart from room to room. The hallways amplify the crunch of plastic bags being prepared in neat stacks and the thwack of unusable cardboard boxes being flattened by volunteers John Kitchens and Jack Leary.
"What makes a box unusable?" Kitchens asks, flattening more cardboard, "the holes or the bugs?"
"They've all got holes and bugs," Leary responds. The men laugh.
By the end of the morning preparations, there are 22 signed-in volunteers and a line of shoppers down the street.
Less than 10 minutes before shoppers are let in, the volunteers congregate in the hallway. It's time for a prayer and introductions. Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project and an adjunct professor at the UT Law School, leads the prayer.
We stand hand-in-hand as Harrington asks us to pray for starving people in other countries, especially the babies. A baby cries just behind the closed door. I'm reminded of the intangible: the anonymous "hungry" could be my neighbors.
Getting food home
I'm stationed at the packing table along with many other first-time volunteers, including sorority members Jessica and Jennifer Hannah and Uwana Akpan . They found out about Micah 6 through a friend who volunteers here often.
Last time I volunteered at Micah 6, I worked the Kids' Corner, signing in children so they could play and make crafts while their parents' had a few moments to shop in the already crowded pantry. The Kids' Corner is on the side of the double doors where the parents wait to get into the pantry. I'd never experienced the pantry side. Waiting in a line of about 10 volunteers, we patted our piles of plastic bags impatiently.
Within five minutes of the first clients coming through, each bagger is sacking like a pro: Heavy cans on the bottom of the sack, then noodles, then bread up top. Produce is bagged separately when possible to avoid crushing vegetables.
Shoppers are encouraged to bring their own reusable shopping bags, luggage or backpacks to put their groceries in. Less than halfway through the pantry my fellow baggers and I were shouting "Do you have more bags?" By the end of the hour, I was high-fiving shoppers with large duffle bags. One man with a gray beard and a hat pushed away a plastic bag as I started to bag his produce.
"Do you know how many years that takes in a landfill to decompose?" he asked.
Hour comes to an end
The hiss of a bottle of disinfectant and a stream of white paper towels flags the end of the morning's pantry. My fellow baggers and look around. I had no idea an hour had passed.
Like a switch had been turned off, the noise and hustle suddenly cease. Inside the pantry there are still many boxes of Rice Krispies and several jars of peanut butter. The produce is gone. In the hallway, volunteers sweep onion peels and stray carrots off the floor.
Outside, some shoppers sit, waiting for rides. I wave at a woman in a wheelchair, the same chair to which I'd strapped a heavy bag of groceries a short while ago. She promises she won't tip over and wheels away.
"Have a wonderful day," I say.
"You, too, baby," she says. "God bless you."
How to help
Capital Area Food Bank of Texas.8201 S. Congress Ave. Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. To volunteer or to seek assistance, call 282-2111 or go to www.austinfoodbank.org .
Micah 6. 2203 San Antonio St. Hours: 6 to 7 p.m. Thursdays, 10:30 to 11:30 a.m. Saturdays. To volunteer or to seek food assistance, call 473-0088 or go to www.micah6austin.org .