A Day at the Market

News | May 13, 2021

St. Paul volunteers spend countless hours feeding community families

Bending, sorting, boxing, bagging, hauling, delivering, counting, connecting; It’s another day at Madison Market.

Madison Market has become a familiar sight at St. Paul since the pandemic moved into our community last year. Tuesdays are bustling with activity, as volunteers swiftly set up the market stations in the morning and prepare for the line of cars that will follow in the afternoon.

A holy place

The market was first established in 2014 when Madison Elementary School Principal Steve Mielenhausen asked if St. Paul would create a school pantry as “hungry children have a hard time learning.” The original pantry operated out of the cafeteria at Madison and the founders of the program included volunteers Barb Blake, Susan Marty, Kit Whan, and St. Paul Neighborhood school partnership coordinator, Dana Welser. The market is a Riverbend Foodbank school pantry. The pantry relocated from Madison into the J.B. Young Opportunity Center just on the other side of Locust Street.

“Madison Market is a holy place. It always has been,” Dana said. “Bringing together those who can give and those who need and together they find their way. And sometimes it is the guests that give, and the volunteers that receive; this pantry is reciprocal in that each of us finds ourselves at times in a place where we need to be connected, know that we are needed, know that we matter.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the J.B. Young Opportunity Center closed to the public, St. Paul market volunteers knew that families would need the assistance now more than ever.

“Food was scarce even for families who had never had a problem finding food,” Dana said. “The team knew we had to be open to help “food insecure” families. We asked St. Paul if we could basically take over the first floor and they said “yes” before we even finished the question.”

A dedicated crew

While the number of families varies, the market sees an average of 130 families each pantry day. And the program is run by dedicated St. Paul volunteers. These volunteers give countless hours each year to serve hundreds of neighborhood children and their families. They shop and stock the pantry as well as make connections with families while delivering food packages to the cars of community members.

“Kit Whan and Susan Marty have a unique commitment,” Dana said. “Seven years, twice a month, committing to entire years’ worth of schedules and roles. Karen Kline-Jerome joined the team about five years ago and those three are mountain climbers. They never say no; they put 20-plus hard hours into each pantry week for planning and behind-the-scenes work without complaint or pay; they have totally different goals and commitments and perspectives. There would be no pantry without them. They work every week of every year. Each volunteer literally makes the impossible possible.”

Kit Whan started volunteering at the very beginning when the pantry was still located inside Madison Elementary in 2014 and quickly became part of the leadership team. At the time, Kit had joined a hunger team here at St. Paul and was looking for additional ways to volunteer her time. She is now the “numbers” person, ordering food, taking counts prior to the market, and completing her day with paperwork that is filed to Riverbend Foodbank to show the number of people served.

“I had worked full-time for 27 years in the book business and when my book store went out of business part of what I wanted to do was devote some time to volunteering,” Kit said. “It just so happened that it was in a Connections that said we’re starting a pantry at Madison School. Hunger was something that just called to me.”

Kit and this determined team don’t let anything stop their pantry from operating. Not thunderstorms, snowstorms, or even the pandemic. “A lot of pantries are fair-weather pantries. We are not,” Kit said. “Rain, sun, hail, thunderstorms. Especially this year, we’ve had tremendous weather outside. We’ve just made that commitment, we’re going to be open. People are hungry all year round and we were going to serve them all year round.”

Karen Kline-Jerome began volunteering with the market five years ago. “I got involved with the pantry when I retired from teaching and was looking for someplace to volunteer,” Karen said. “I started out ‘shopping’ for bread and produce at Riverbend and delivering it to Madison School.”

During a market week, Karen volunteers more than 10 hours to ensure a successful market day. Starting around 6:30 a.m. on that Tuesday morning, Karen and her husband, Chris, can be seen arriving to meet the Riverbend Foodbank truck and to begin setting up for the day.

“On Mondays, I pull back stock that will be put out on tables. This back stock, along with items delivered on Tuesday morning by Riverbend Foodbank, will be boxed or bagged up on Tuesday morning to be handed out on Tuesday afternoon,” Karen said. “We then begin unloading pallets along with other volunteers who show up around 7:30 a.m.”

As vaccination rates rise, Madison Market will one day return to J.B. Young, but for now, at the end of the day, you’ll still see empty pallets sitting outside the main entrance to the church, pallets that were filled with food and supplies, now at home with those who need them.

“We will go back to J.B. Young one day but will be forever shaped by the time spent at our church,” Dana said. “Working outside on the circle, under the steeple, under the cross, greeting families as they pull up, under the banner of this church is holy.”

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