By Sarah Hoehn
Carrboro Commons Co-Editor
Heavenly Groceries seeks to bring healthy and delicious food options to every table in need within the Chapel Hill and Carrboro communities, while encouraging members of those communities to get involved.
Started in 2002 by the Rev. Troy Harrison of St. Joseph C.M.E. Church on 510 W. Rosemary St., this food justice program is based on the principle that everyone deserves access to quality food. A partnership with the Marian Cheek Jackson Center has helped the program to expand greatly in the past decade.
“The intention is that we honor folks’ situation,” says Monica Palmeira, managing director at the Jackson Center. “We hope that this allows them to keep dignity in the act of coming to a food bank.”
Initially, Harrison and his wife began Heavenly Groceries by collecting bread from the Entenmann’s factory. They then distributed it among the members of the congregation once a week. According to Palmeira, the food ministry now serves more than 3,000 people each month by collecting food from four different grocery stores.
“Every day we have a morning shift and an afternoon shift,” says Khristian Curry, community services specialist for Heavenly Groceries and a current sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “There are three Food Lions that give us produce in the morning, and in the afternoon we get food from the IFC [Inter-Faith Council for Social Service] and Trader Joe’s.”
The food bank is open Monday through Friday and is run through the collaborative efforts of local church members, UNC-CH students, and locally-based volunteers.
“Seeing the need originally, we wanted to respond to it,” says Palmeira. “After that, it was about trying to think of ways to do it better and to assist people in ways that were healthier. From there, it just kept growing and growing and growing.”
Heavenly Groceries is the only certified food bank in North Carolina that allows its patrons to make their own food selections from the available choices. Patrons file in, see the layout of food options, and choose the items they want to take home. All food is given away based on a lottery system.
“I think it’s all about trying to help the community, but in ways that try to support people and not bring them down. This means helping them to keep cultural traditions and respecting people’s food ways and traditions,” Palmeira said. “Usually we try to portion it out based on how many people are waiting outside. A lot of days we have so much food that we just say take it all.”
Heavenly Groceries offers its patrons a variety of food options including fresh produce, meat, cheese, bread, deserts and processed foods.
“Apples, apples, apples,” says Donnie “Hollywood” Riggsbee, a Carrboro resident and volunteer with Heavenly Groceries. “We always have so many apples.”
The food ministry has seen a significant increase in the number of people served over the past several years. In the four years that she has been there, Palmeira says she has seen the number of daily patrons increase from about 30 people to anywhere between 60 and 70. According to Palmeira, “word got around.”
“It’s a very diverse group,” says Palmeira. “You could never characterize a Heavenly Groceries patron. We get folks of all ages, races, folks from the university, students, all kinds of folks.”
With an increasing number of patrons has come a greater need for volunteers. Over the past several years, dozens of UNC-CH students have gotten involved with Heavenly Groceries as part of the APPLES Service-Learning program.
“We’ve been overwhelmed with APPLES requests this semester,” says Curry. “Last semester we only had two volunteers and this time we had 20. We definitely want to reach out and gain a more sustainable volunteer base.”
In addition to working with the university, Heavenly Groceries also seeks to make connections with students living in the community that the food ministry serves.
“In the long run, it would be really great to get students that live in the community to come and commit here. APPLES courses are great and it’s a great way to get students engaged, but the ideal goal would be to have students that come on their own terms and work because they want to,” says Palmeira. “We want students to know where they’re living and to be interactive with the communities that they’re living in.”
The food ministry strongly emphasizes their co-labor approach and stresses that workers and volunteers are working alongside the community, and not for it.
“When you’re doing work along side of folks, it’s a really cool way to grow together,” says Palmeira. “That’s the idea we want to instill in our volunteers, a sense of connection with the local community.”
“This is more than just your everyday volunteer opportunity. You really have an opportunity to connect with people on a different level,” says Curry. “I’ve bonded with the community members in a really unique way. Being a military brat, I get to experience community in a way that I have never seen it before.”
Looking ahead, Heavenly Groceries wants to create lasting relationships within the Carrboro and Chapel Hill community. “In a nutshell, it’s the idea that, where there is a need, it’s being met,” says Palmeira. “It’s a pretty special and unique place, for sure.”
- The Marian Cheek Jackson Center; http://www.jacksoncenter.info/
- APPLES Service Learning Program: http://ccps.unc.edu/apples-service-learning/
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