When Susan Gustaitis was hired as the executive director of Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale 10 years ago, its food bank served 250 people. During her tenure, that number increased to more than 27,000.
“Our needs increased dramatically,” Gustaitis said. “The awareness of the community, and the support of the community has increased. Of course, during the recession – 2008, 2009 – was when we saw the biggest increase. I think that really hasn’t changed much because of the cost of living and folks working for minimum wage.”
Gustaitis will leave the job next week to become the director of acquisition and distribution for Rhode Island Community Food Bank, a job responsible for acquiring and distributing food donations to more than 200 agencies, including the Jonnycake Center. Gustaitis begins her new job mid-July.
“She really was an incredible leader in Peace Dale,” said Andrew Schiff, Rhode Island Community Food Bank executive director. “This job gives her the opportunity to take that role statewide. The demand for food assistance remains the same, but the donations from corporations and supermarkets are down, and they’re trending down. We needed someone who is great at looking for creative ways to bring in food.”
During her time at Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale, Gustaitis did just that.
The agency’s clients get food for 21 meals a week, enough for three meals a day. In 2005, the center served 39,552 meals (Gustaitis knew this number by heart). During the height of the Great Recession, it was approximately 317,000 meals per year.
Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale carries perishable and non-perishable food. During her tenure, the organization focused on acquiring healthy foods, such as fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and milk.
“In 2005, I don’t think the community awareness was there,” Gustaitis said. “People were donating whatever. I think we really strived to let them know exactly what we needed, more healthy food. The most challenging thing is figuring out ways to meet the needs. It changes.”
A big change occurred during the recession – donors found themselves in need of the agency’s services.
“I think there’s a stigma,” she said. “We hear it all the time. It’s one of the most difficult things, the negative judgements of those who are in need of food. I think it’s a challenge for people to walk through that door and say, ‘I’m in need.’”
Gustaitis became teary-eyed as she talked about a note she received from one of Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale’s first 250 clients. He thanked the agency for its help, and said he has since watched his children grow and attend college, and no longer needed the center’s support.
Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale primarily serves residents of South Kingstown and Narragansett. Its main office and retail thrift store are located at 1231 Kingstown Road and the food pantry is at 1183B Kingstown Road. It opened Furniture that Feeds, a homegoods store, at 1207 Kingstown Road earlier this year. The agency delivers meals to the elderly and disabled, and offers a summer meal program for schoolchildren who receive free or reduced lunch. During her tenure, Gustaitis also added new programs, such as Team Jonnycake, a volunteer program for teenagers.
“Susan has certainly been an incredible force for developing programs and the stability of the organization, financially and it’s place in the community,” said Katherine Horoschak, board member. “Having Susan has been a blessing for us. She has a passion for this work. This is not just her job, she’s incredibly dedicated to this mission of eliminating hunger.”
“Day-to-day at Jonnycake, I do a little bit of everything,” Gustaitis said. “I try to think all the time about the vision of ending hunger. Everything that we do here is about speaking to that, and just trying to connect with the resources to make that happen. Our mission of clothing, household, food has always been there. It has not changed.”