‘Holy Foods Market’ brings customer service to local pantry

Washington D.C., Sep 16, 2018 / 07:00 am (CNA).- Northeast Washington, D.C., has seen rapid gentrification over the past decade. What was once a very poor neighborhood is now home to many high-end businesses, including a Whole Foods Market–and an innovative food pantry inspired in part by the upscale grocery store.

While the Whole Foods Market is open seven days a week, the “Holy Foods Market,” run by the Holy Name of Jesus Parish, located on K Street NE, is open twice a month.

Instead of a traditional food pantry, where those in need would receive a bag of food, clients who visit the Holy Foods Market are able to “shop” through the shelves and pick out what food items they would like.

The pastor at Holy Name of Jesus, Fr. Bill Carloni, said that he wanted to replicate the experience he had visiting Whole Foods in his parish’s food pantry. The idea grew into Holy Foods Market, which began operations in May, a little more than a year after the Whole Foods opened down the street. 

The pantry serves about 80 to 100 families a month, Carloni told CNA in an interview. Unlike many food pantries, few of the clients at Holy Foods Market are homeless. Most of the people served by the Market retirees, single parents, or the elderly. Each client is paired with a volunteer who assists them with the process of “shopping” for food.

Clients choose for themselves how much or how little food they need, within a certain limit. No one is required to take any particular food item, and some “customers” may only want certain things like milk, cereal, or peanut butter, Carloni said.

The setup of Holy Foods Market helps to preserve the clients’ dignity, the pastor told CNA. The pantry does not verify the income of its clients, though it does request that they either live within the approximate geographic boundary of the parish, or else have some sort of interaction with the church, either spiritually or as a volunteer.

"I've had feedback from a person, who said, 'You know, I'm so thankful that you treat me like a human being,’” said Carloni.

“I think that often they say 'beggars can't be choosers,' but that's the whole point. We don't want people to feel like beggars, and I think this does help humanize what we do. It does make them feel like they're shopping."

Allowing people to choose their own food items also has other benefits, Carloni explained to CNA. Because clients only pick items they actually want, no donated food is wasted.

The system also allows the Market to better accommodate clients with special diets or food allergies.

The previous system of distributing pre-packed bags of food resulted in many items going to waste, said Carloni, noting that cans of food were often found discarded outside of the pantry.

"There was one person who said specifically that she used to come, every month, to get food. But then when she would get home, she would empty the bag and she would keep about half the contents and then she would re-donate the other half back to the pantry, ” said Carloni.

“So she was trying not to waste it, actually, but what would end up happening is that she'd get the same stuff back the next month.”

Caroni told CNA that he believes sometimes people can approach ministries like a food pantry with a  “wrong mentality” and that those who are less fortunate “should be grateful and they should just take whatever they get.”

Fr. Carloni said that for many of the clients at the Market, it is extremely humbling to have to ask for a handout or for food assistance, and they strive to make the process of “shopping” as dignified and “customer oriented” as possible.

"I think a lot of people at one point or another have been in need of charity. Receiving love shouldn’t come at the cost of your dignity."

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