It was 8:30 AM. The sun was rising fast. Cars lined the road, waiting for the Food Pantry of Jeff Davis County to open. In this tiny town of 1,200, nearly three hours away from the nearest decent sized town, one woman was transforming the way the decades old food pantry fed people in need.
Meet Vicki Gibson. Now 60, Vicki took the reins of the food pantry just six months ago. She’s never run a food pantry before, but you’d never know it.
As the sole paid employee, she seamlessly juggles securing and providing food, connecting with the people who need food, fundraising, educating the community about food insecurity, and wading through the piles of paperwork. On top of all that, she’s an ardent recycler in a region that has no recycling.
“Just because we’re rural doesn’t mean we are backwards,” she tells me in her Texan drawl. “I try to keep up with the latest things happening in the world of food pantries. If it fits our mission and makes sense, I’ll think about how to implement a new idea at our food pantry. I think for a tiny rural food pantry, we are fairly progressive.”
Progressive doesn’t begin to describe Vicki’s creative and strategic approach to doing everything she can to ensure no one goes hungry. I had heard about Vicky through a friend who was struck by her determination that no one in her county would go hungry.
Like many food pantries across the country working to keep everyone safely social-distanced, Vicki had to figure out how to transform the “client picks” system, a store-like approach to distributing food where clients shop the warehouse shelves using a points-based budget, into a drive-thru distribution with all boxes prepacked.
She refused, though, to make clients give up all choices; they would still get to choose what type of meat they wanted: chicken with either pork, fish or beef. “I hate that clients don’t get a choice” she confides. “Everyone’s tastes and nutritional needs are different. But it is what it is. Until this is over, we will follow the CDC guidelines as well as best practices from our partners at the West Texas Food Bank.”
Within a matter of days, the plan to overhaul the warehouse, using all volunteer labor, was underway.
At 9:01 am, Vicki surveyed the preparations and checked that all volunteers were ready. She inhaled deeply and waved for the first car to be funneled though a series of stations designated by a series of cones.
Today, rural community food pantries like these are hustling hard to meet the rising needs of their already-strapped communities. Since the onset of the pandemic, food pantries have been faced with a dramatic increase in the need for food. “Not only is our enrollment increasing, we also now have a larger percentage of clients showing up at each distribution. Our Pack-a-Lunch (PAL) program for school-age children has increased by about 25%. Everything is uncertain. Things change on a daily basis.”
I marvel at Vicki’s drive and sheer get-shit-done determination to make sure all her community stays fed. If someone were to make a time-lapse movie of the last week at the food bank, it would look like a Charlie Chaplain film on steroids.
In less than seven days, she and dozens of volunteers transformed her 4,300 sq. ft. warehouse to make it drive-thru able, all the while adhering to CDC guidelines. New client distributions forms were made. Volunteers, wearing masks and gloves, moved stock once stored on shelves onto assembly tables. Over the course of two days, small shifts of less than ten people packed over 150 boxes of food and another 100 bags of lunches for school children. A local businessman secured over 30 orange cones and designed a safe drive-thru system. A video was created showing the new system. Facebook posts were made.
As she shared her story, Vicki got solemn for moment. “I’m concerned that people who need help won’t ask for it. In our society, there is a lot of shame associated with unemployment and poverty. Our self-worth seems to be inextricably attached to our job, what we do, what we produce, how much money we have. I hope people reach out if they need help. And I’m concerned that during this pandemic the supply chains will break down and there will be severe shortages – more than what we are already seeing.”
Remember that Charlie Chaplin movie? There are two scenes. One is the warehouse getting a complete overhaul and cars streaming through. The other is Vicki in her office on the phone, dozens of calls each day, eating her lunch at her computer, posting on Facebook calling her community to action. The woman is tireless. “I can’t imagine doing anything else” she says. “Well other than spend nights with my 3-legged dogs, orphaned kitties, and husband of almost forty years.”
Although she hopes that someday there will be no hungry people in her community, she knows that getting food means getting funding. This week her work paid off. The Permian Basin Area Foundation, a philanthropic foundation whose mission is to enrich the quality of life in West Texas communities, offered her a $10,000 matching grant to offset the loss of the food pantry’s biggest fundraiser due to the virus.
Go, everyday superheroes, go!
POST NOTE: If you, or someone you know, is looking to donate to an awesome rural food bank that’s making sure people get fed in these difficult times, consider joining Vicki and the Jeff Davis County Food Pantry to make sure people in this tiny town who need help, never have to go hungry.