In just a short visit, Hattie Winston’s vibrant energy helped brighten up a cloudy March morning at her local food pantry.
Winston, 62, lives down the street from Circle Urban Ministries, an Austin-based social services organization that offers food every Wednesday. She warmly greeted the staff and volunteers as she arrived to pick up groceries, donning a face mask with the phrase “I’m actually smiling” printed across its center.
Winston blinked back tears as she described the impact the help has on her.
“They’re a blessing to this neighborhood, the Austin neighborhood,” she said.
Winston had to retire from her retail job in 2015 after a back surgery left her unable to work. Today, she receives social security and disability benefits. To help with groceries, she also receives support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“They don’t cover all that I need,” she said of those programs. “This is my little extra help.”
Winston is one of the dozens of local residents who visit Circle Urban Ministries’ Daily Bread food pantry, which serves its West Side community in partnership with the Food Depository. As a recipient of the Food Depository’s recent round of equity grants to lift up communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic, Circle Urban Ministries is planning on opening a second day of the week, which they estimate could increase their number of people served by 50%.
Guests have requested a second distribution day, said Kim Molenda, director of programs outreach. In addition to Wednesday mornings, they plan to also serve Thursday evenings starting in mid-April.
“That way we can accommodate people who have school, or jobs, or are helping with their kids with virtual learning,” Molenda said. “We don’t want their morning schedule to impact whether or not they get food.”
The grant is also funding renovations to expand and improve operations, something outreach coordinator Darriel Anderson said she hopes will bring extra “dignity and hope” to those coming through their doors.
“It’s been a long time coming,” said Anderson, who’s operated the pantry for more than three years. “God heard our prayers and he answered.”
Most of the remodeling is taking place in Circle Urban’s basement, where the pantry operates during non-COVID times. The upgrades include new vinyl flooring, improved lighting and wider doorways to accommodate carts of food. The renovation is also leaving more room for both cold and dry good storage, which Molenda said will come in handy once the pantry expands its hours and serves more households.
“There may be some reservation (from guests) about coming to a pantry – we don’t want people to come to a basement to get food,” Molenda said. “It’s definitely opening up the space more, allowing us to store and receive more food to distribute to our clients, and just make it feel a lot more welcoming.”
‘A helping hand’
Founded in 1974, Circle Urban Ministries has been a community fixture for several decades. Prior to COVID, the site offered on-site youth programs and other outreach services, including for those facing unemployment or homelessness.
This past year, the pantry has served approximately 400 people monthly, including many first-time guests dealing with the economic hardships caused by COVID-19.
“It means a lot because it’s a helping hand for me and my family,” said Rita Westbrook, another one of Circle Urban’s guests during a recent distribution. Like Winston, Westbrook, 55, said the food assistance helps her and her granddaughter, who she watches during the day.
Anderson, the pantry’s coordinator, has also personally felt the support of the pantry this past year. Since most of the nonprofit’s programs have been paused because of the pandemic, she’s spent most of the past 12 months furloughed. But still, she and her volunteers have kept the pantry open every week.
During this time, she’s turned to the pantry to help feed her own family. And beyond that, she said continuing to give back has given her a sense of fulfillment – an escape from these stressful times.
“The pantry is like a ministry to me… It goes beyond just a paycheck for me,” she said. “It’s to be here, to be a servant to the community.”