The Fair Haven Food Pantry – An Inspiring Story

The Fair Haven Food Pantry drive-through food distribution led by Chapelwood Serving Ministries Director, Suzanne Harter, and Associate Director, Even Nehring, is a marvel of flexible management and volunteer effort. Food sourcing, storage issues, and safety recommendations have shifted constantly. Begun on March 23, 2020 after the Fair Haven traditional pantry closed for the pandemic, it has seen over 7,000 volunteer hours spent to provide food sourced mostly from the Houston Food Bank to over 26,000 families representing over 129,000 people with over 1 million pounds of food (as of mid-August). Located on the Fair Haven campus of Chapelwood, it has captured the attention of a grateful Spring Branch community and leaders city-wide. It is simply astounding. The pantry has come such a long, long way since the early days.

Before COVID-19…

Even before there was a “pantry” at Fair Haven, folks dropped by the church office for help beginning in the late 1950’s. After the 1967 Fair Haven main sanctuary was completed, requests for help began to overwhelm Church Secretary, Pebble Lynch, who would usually provide vouchers to the A&P across the street or the Burger King next door. Soon this need would touch the hearts of the members of Fair Haven’s Society of St. Stephen formed in 1970. After providing a home for an Acres Homes family and establishing tutoring classes, a dental clinic, and a day care center just north of Fair Haven in Carverdale, they began to address the challenge of widespread hunger. It was a time of deep recession sweeping across the country, and people were moving to Texas looking for work. “It was heartbreaking,” said pantry founder and Society of St. Stephen member, Donna Schlitt. She points to delivering Christmas baskets of food in Carverdale as the turning point that set the society’s sights on establishing a food pantry at Fair Haven.

By now, it was the mid-1970’s. Donna Schlitt remembers those days well. “We found a closet just inside the entrance of the newly constructed Sanctuary and built shelves for canned goods.” Society members would often chip in to augment red barrel food donations at church entrances, and Communion offerings. Donna recalls a defining moment: “I remember one day seeing some people driving up to the church with an overstuffed van looking for food; we realized immediately that we needed to get serious about creating a ministry.”

About 1975, as the pantry outgrew the little closet, Society of St. Stephen member Jim Tunnell located a shipping container, placing it next to the Scout Hut. More shelves were built, and a little window air conditioner was installed. A volunteer from St. Andrew Lutheran Church for 35 years, Alleen Meinecke, remembers the heat: “When we started volunteering, we were serving clients out of the container next to the Scout Hut; there was just a small place for us to sit in the container, two people at a time; we had to use two shifts of people because it was so cramped and hot in there.”

“So, we struck a deal with our Boy Scout Troop 631,” said Donna Schlitt. “They would let us use the Scout Hut as a Food Pantry during the day, and they could use the container to store camping gear. With more space, we could then introduce more food variety to our clients.”

After Donna Schlitt became the Fair Haven Church Business Administrator in 1984, Bob McDonald assumed leadership of the pantry. By 1986, the Fair Haven Food Pantry had been recognized in Houston media outlets for serving more families food than any other organization in the City of Houston with 59,000 persons served that year and climbing. No one then imagined that it would peak at 76,000 annual clients by 1990.

Some of the vital organizations providing food and services to area pantries were just beginning. Donna Schlitt remembers a meeting in those early days at the Catholic Retreat Center. She remembers meeting the man working to get the Houston Food Bank started: “We visited different organizations encouraging support; we were even on Channel 13 several times.” When the pantry moved to the Scout Hut, Memorial Assistance Ministries (MAM) was just in its infancy. They had opened a business at Witte and Long Point near Fair Haven. “MAM began to send people to us for food,” Donna said, “and we began sending people to them for gas and other needs.” Eventually, as the MAM operation moved down on Blalock, the Fair Haven Food Pantry was designated as the official source for food for MAM clients.

A series of five pantry burglaries between July 14th and July 20th, 1988 galvanized community support at the precise moment that a new pantry building was desperately needed to serve increasing numbers of clients. Funds for a new building flowed from Fair Haven members, neighboring churches, organizations, and community minded individual donors. Fortunately, plans moved very quickly.

By the first of the next year, an airconditioned modular building with space for food storage, an office, and restroom arrived by truck to be placed on an empty lot on the Fair Haven campus.

The event prompted an interview by the Houston Chronicle. Bob McDonald was careful to point out in the article that it would take much more than a new pantry building to continue to serve 70,000 people annually. “Without volunteer help, there would be no Food Pantry,” she said. “The only way we can minister to the needy in our community is through the service of the volunteers and the gifts of money and food.”

The extra Thanksgiving and Christmas distributions are examples of volunteer effort and coordination. They had to begin working weeks ahead to be ready to serve clients waiting in wavy lines toward Gessner Road as the sun came up on distribution day. Some food was ordered from the Food Bank. Other food would be culled from food drive donations as they came in, being saved in stacks on pantry pallets for the big day.

Just moving the food was a back breaking, job consuming two days. In the early days, convoys of volunteer pickup trucks arrived early at the pantry on the first day. They would quickly move tons of food hand over hand into the trucks, speeding it down to the Fellowship Hall over and over for stacking and sorting. By the end of the day, the Fellowship Hall was bulging with huge stacks of sorted food along the walls, signs indicating sack quantities. It took all the usual weekday volunteers and many more to do the sorting and fill the initial set of 400 sacks. Some volunteers were High School Juniors and Seniors from area schools. Others were from Fair Haven and other churches.

Then Bob McDonald would head to the Farmer’s Market to order tons of produce. The potatoes, apples, oranges, celery, and onions would be delivered by truck the next day on pallets. "It was a very ecumenical and community wide operation," said Bob McDonald. “It took up to 40 to 50 volunteers each day. I would tell them to put the bread on top of the sacks, and watch out for the rotten onions in the produce bags.”

Many volunteers came back again to help serve the clients who received a heavy sack and picked up the other produce sack on the way out. Additional volunteers were posted in the parking lot to direct vehicular traffic and keep those on foot out of harm's way. In more recent years since the construction of the Christian Life Center, moving food and distribution can be managed easier. For many Spring Branch families, serving in holiday distributions has become an annual expression of community support and Christian faith. Many children have learned to serve others for a lifetime by helping in holiday distributions.

There have been untold hundreds of volunteers who have served since the pantry’s early days. Forty or more volunteers have been needed each week over all those years. St. Andrew Lutheran Church Thursday volunteer Alleen Meinecke tried to recall how many have served from her church: “There have been so many volunteers over the years, more than I could count… maybe 30 or more.” Volunteers have been busy checking in weekday clients, doing chores like picking up food from the red barrels, and loading in and organizing tons of food from area food drives. They have been retrieving pastries and produce from area shops and grocery stores and making chicken soup. They have been filing reports, speaking to groups, writing thank you notes, keeping the books, or repairing siding and plumbing.

The twenty-six most recent volunteers have tried to explain in interviews why they do it. Some point to giving back, gratitude for what they have, a deep feeling that comes from helping, or an expression of their faith. Most struggle to put it into words. It goes both ways. We struggle to know how to deeply say thank you.

For pantry volunteers, change was already afoot before the pandemic began. Director Bob McDonald was ready to retire after 35 years of service. Treasurer, Lloyd Hejtmancik, had delayed his retirement as long as he could after 30 years, having served the past 20 years as treasurer. Office assistant, Denise Blok, also needed to step back from that role after serving over 10 years. Many of the current pantry volunteers were in high health risk categories when the pandemic began as the traditional pantry operation closed its doors. Suzanne Harter and her Serving Ministries Team just rolled up their sleeves and jumped in, taking on the mammoth task of continuing to serve hungry people.

When asked about retiring, Bob McDonald said simply, “It’s time. I guess part of it is just getting older,” she continued as she spoke of the joy that accompanied making sure that food was available for hungry people. “I liked to be in there, hands on, meeting the people who donate, visiting with clients, and working with the members of other churches who volunteer.” Bob expressed her gratitude to all those who have been a part of the ecumenical pantry operation over the years with amazing community partners, financial supporters, and food drives.

Over the years, there have been hundreds of volunteers and supporters from area churches. Before March 24, about a dozen volunteers each had been serving from Chapelwood’s Fair Haven and Greenbay Campus worship communities. On Thursdays, the team from St. Andrew Lutheran had been at work, and on other days, volunteers from Chapelwood’s Generaciones worship community, St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church, Christ the King Presbyterian, Pines Presbyterian, and the Mormon Church had been doing their part. Other volunteers had been serving out of love for their community or as a part of community service organizations.

Retiring Director, Bob McDonald, is also grateful for those who are making possible the special pandemic food distribution until our usual pantry operation can resume under new leadership. A listening team is currently reaching out to church and community stakeholders to discern a path forward as the Fair Haven Food Pantry enters the post-pandemic world.

The current Fair Haven Food Pantry emergency pandemic distribution for which our community is so grateful is built on a solid foundation reaching back many years. Easily accessible records reaching back as far as 1986 show that from that year until the emergency pandemic distribution began, over 120,000 families representing over 1.3 million people had been served. Of those, over 25,000 families representing 120,000 people have been served in the special distributions at Christmas and Thanksgiving over those same years.

As Bob McDonald has rightly said, "Without volunteer help, there would be no food pantry.

Bob Luton

Food Pantry Volunteering