In the heart of Peace Dale, more than 1,800 residents of Narragansett and South Kingstown found a place of sanctuary last year.
Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale, 1231 Kingstown Road, helps people feed themselves and their families during difficult times. Executive Director Kate Brewster, who holds a master’s degree in social work and previously worked in research and policy advocacy on poverty issues, took the helm in October. Since then, she has been determined to provide its clients with as much food as possible, especially fresh foods and proteins.
More than 1,800 people registered with the food pantry last year, and it serves an average of 630 client visits each month.
“New people come here every day who have lost their job, have experienced a crisis or became disabled and find themselves unable to afford to keep a roof over their head,” Brewster said. “If they are [keeping their homes], then they can’t afford to go to the grocery store. So they can at least come here and know they can get food on the table.”
As the staff distributed Thanksgiving baskets last year, they asked recipients to fill out a survey about the food pantry, so the center could get an in-depth look at their needs. Of the 210 people who received baskets, 160 answered the survey.
“The big misconception is that South County is a wealthy community, but we absolutely have pockets of poverty that are more hidden than other urban areas in the state,” Brewster said. “One only needs to spend one hour at our food pantry to know that there are many, many people who are struggling.”
Last week, a mother came into Jonnycake Center, saying her home had been foreclosed upon and her family had to move out immediately, walking way from most of their belongings. Brewster said the woman was able to come into the shelter and get food for her family along with gift cards to buy basic items such as toiletries.
Brewster said she periodically sees people who do not want to be at the food pantry and who are embarrassed by the need to ask for help. She said she understands that the shame is personal, but it can be turned around quickly.
“Once they walk away with bags full of groceries, I think it gives them the confidence that there is help available and that they’re going to get through it,” Brewster said. “If anyone doubts that there are households struggling in South County, they should come and visit us and the Welcome House because it’s very clear to us that it’s a big problem in our area.”
“[The staff understands that] this could be anyone, [it] could happen to anyone,” she said, and as a result clients are treated with respect and dignity and are offered encouragement.
Brewster said she is inspired by the perseverance and strength of the clients, for whom lack of opportunity and lack of a well-paying job is not enough to discourage them from moving forward and overcoming the challenges.
The need was clear, Brewster said. Clients needed enough food and to have more nutritious options. The organization decided to focus on this as a priority, and to help clients with economic challenges, by offering referrals to other organizations, assistance with applying for government benefits and advice for those facing utility shut-offs or potential eviction. They also provide transportation to job interviews.
Non-profit organizations in the area help each other, Brewster said. The Welcome House of South County and the Jonnycake Center work together to provide employment opportunities such as furniture pick up or delivery services, as needed.
Such outreach to other organizations is crucial, she said, as 80 percent of respondents said they had no connection to community help, social work or case manager assistance.
Of the Jonnycake Center’s work, the food pantry was seen as vital, survey results found.
“While I shouldn’t be surprised that our visitors are food insecure, going through the surveys, seeing respondent after respondent circle that they had skipped meals is shocking and extremely disconcerting,” Brewster said.
The survey found 80 percent of Jonnycake Center clients reported “very low” or “low” food security – 41 percent have “very low” food security.
“It was clear we had to do more,” Brewster said. “I knew on paper, how many people needed help. But being back in my own community and seeing people every day, has been eye opening and it’s brought those numbers I used to study and present to lawmakers to life.”
The survey’s findings allowed them to rethink the pantry’s inner workings. Last May, the pantry distributed an average of 20 pounds of food per person. That has been increased to 34 pounds per person.
“We are looking to buy more proteins,” Brewster said. “We are now purchasing chicken, pork chops, hamburgers from Tase-Right [a wholesaler in Peace Dale], which people love.”
The clients love the variety, Brewster said.
Clients now receive fresh produce, such as lettuce from the University of Rhode Island Master Gardener program, Rhody Fresh milk and eggs, strawberries and grapes. There are gluten-free options and low-sodium alternatives for those who need such special diets.
In 2015, more than 215,000 pounds of food were distributed.
This year’s budget was finalized and submitted to the board of directors before the survey results were completed, so Brewster foresees the organization exceeding its food budget, but she said the nonprofit’s board understands and embraced the new direction.
“This does point to the need to continue to raise funds so that we can cover those expenses,” Brewster said, even though local churches, civic organizations and individuals have always been generous to the organization.
The shift in focus brought the end to one plan that had been in the works for several years. In 2013, Jonnycake Center announced plans to open Hope Café, a cafe that would offer “pay-what-you-can” meals. This model has been used successfully in other states. Fundraising was in place for the venture, but Brewster and the Board of Directors have decided not to pursue it further.
The board felt the financial risk was too great, and that most successful establishments of that type get financial assistance from well-endowed foundations, major donors, corporate sponsorship or a church mission, Brewster said.
“Our decision does not leave the community without access to free or low-cost prepared meals,” Brewster said in a statement posted on the center’s website. “Peace Dale Congregational Church offers Dinner Table, a free, sit-down meal for local residents every Wednesday from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Church of the Ascension hosts a free, weekly Sunday dinner from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. Welcome House of South County also provides free lunch Monday through Friday at noon. The South Kingstown Senior Center offers seniors daily lunches for a suggested donation of $3.”
A pilot program will begin in the fall called “Fresh Start.” It is a partnership with the Rhode Island Community Food Bank that will allow several pantries to work intensively with 10 to 12 households. Staff will work with the clients to offer improved food security, motivational coaching and support toward achieving goals. The model has proven to reduce food insecurity and get families back into positive lifestyles, Brewster said.
Jonnycake Center survives largely on donations of food and cash. In recent years, the amount of food donated from large companies has diminished and decreased in quality, she said, as those companies develop new ways to reduce excess inventory and food waste. A recent donation from a large supermarket chain, for instance, included only boxes and boxes of bacon-maple flavored sandwich cookies and maple-scented hand soap.
“One of the reasons why it’s so important for us to get cash donations, in addition to food donations is we can’t totally rely on food donations,” Brewster said. “If we did, our folks wouldn’t get what we know they need.”
Pantry staff is cognizant of the need for a healthy diet, and has worked to provide more fruit and produce to its clients. Forty-five percent of the clients noted they live with a serious health issue, such as heart disease or diabetes. But fresh produce and proteins are more expensive to provide, she said.
To that end, Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale will hold its annual fundraiser September 16 at The Dunes Club, Narragansett. This large event, which includes silent and live auctions, provides a substantial amount of money to the nonprofit each year. Last year, it sold out, with more than 300 people attending.
The board is committed to staying in Peace Dale, Brewster said, but has for some time tried to find a way to reconfigure the services at the three buildings – the thrift shop, food pantry and Furniture that Feeds retail store – into a single space.
“If anyone out there has 2,500 to 3,000 square feet of space in Peace Dale, we’d like to talk to you,” Brewster said.