North Kingstown Food Pantry manager learns skills from URI’s food recovery program for Rhode Island – Rhody Today

KINGSTON, Rhode Island – November 9, 2023 — It’s just after 10 a.m. on Thursday and 20 cars are making their way along the edge of a residential street. Long tables with labeled boxes of fresh produce are placed in a covered parking lot. There’s a palpable rise in energy as the volunteers jostle back and forth, a steady stream of jokes exchanged between them even as they pull out yet another box.

A volunteer in a ragged straw hat and yellow road vest stands among cones blocking the driveway. Finally, Steven Soules, director of operations for the North Kingstown Food Pantry, 445 School Street, yells to the traffic volunteer that it’s time, and he moves the cones to one side as the first two cars turn into the small parking lot. People scan the tables for favorites as they are greeted by volunteers.

Stephen Soules, director of operations for the North Kingstown Food Pantry

“We do this rain, shine, snow, cold weather. We distribute 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of fresh produce each week. Souls spent his formative years in the 1980s as Rhody Ram, including in That Ram Band. His discovery of the University of Rhode Island’s Food Recovery Program for Rhode Island brought him back to campus and he worked to bring his newfound skills to the pantry. The food recovery program is part of URI’s Cooperative Extension.

He has been in the pantry for more than five years after the pantry board decided the organization was in dire need of a full-time professional to keep the enterprise running. Days like this are still exciting for him. “Today we are helping a hundred families here. Almost all clients are eligible for some assistance.”

The pantry is in a renovated school. Known locally as the ‘little red schoolhouse’, it is 150 years old. A blackboard and chalk ledge can still be seen in one storage room. It’s only about 5 feet from the floor to the top of the chalkboard, and it’s easy to imagine kids from days gone by standing on the board and practicing collecting.

Souls says he attended a food recovery class the day before, where he learned the fine art of canning and pickling. “The class is everything I thought it would be. It’s very practical. And I take what I’ve learned back to our volunteers and clients. That’s what I really wanted.”

He hopes the pantry will host some of the URI food recovery staff for an etching workshop.

Inside the building are row upon row of stainless steel mesh shelves as well as refrigeration units. Each shelf carries a label indicating how many items are available based on the number of family members in the household.

Supplies come from a range of sources: local markets, school food drives, and the URI Master Gardener program. Local animal shelters sometimes donate their excess pet food as well. Refrigerators contain products such as eggs, dairy products, fresh meat, produce and more.

“The food leaves as soon as we put it on the shelves,” says Souls. “It’s been so dramatic lately.” Another room is reserved for Thanksgiving food baskets. “We have been collecting items since August. There will be around 400 families coming for this.

Like the food offerings, the 60 or 70 volunteers are diverse: local retirees supporting a good cause; church groups; students needing volunteer hours to fulfill graduation requirements; and people doing court-ordered community service.

Souls says the frustrating part of his job is having to constantly worry about where to find food to fill the shelves. Wouldn’t replace it though. “I worked as a person at the Chamber of Commerce and the food pantry is a member. When I learned the pantry was creating a director of operations position, I applied for it and have been here ever since. The operations manager’s job is very broad: she basically does everything all the time to please multiple users.”

Disappointments aside, Souls is happy where he is. “It’s very invigorating and exhausting every day. Sometimes the road takes you where you need to be.”

This edition is written by Hugh Markey

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