After reading Laudato Sí, Pope Francis’ encyclical on caring for the earth, Elizabeth Acevedo asked herself, “Where do I fit in?” It’s precisely the question Pope Francis wants the reader to ask: “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation, each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvements and talents” (No. 14).
Acevedo manages the Catholic Charities’ food pantry in East Chicago, Indiana, which is in Lake County and the Diocese of Gary. She said that Pope Francis made her think about how she, from her place in the world, can implement the vision of Laudato Sí. “With the resources that I have – which is the food – I’m a part of making a difference and making a change. Now I tell our donors and volunteers, we’re not only feeding people; we’re also saving the environment.”
It’s not just about the weather, Acevedo said. “With the resources that I have – which is the food – I’m a part of making a difference and making a change. Now I tell our donors and volunteers, we’re not only feeding people; we’re also saving the environment.”
According to Acevedo, every day in the United States 197 million pounds of edible food goes into landfills and begins to decay, emitting harmful toxins into the environment (See feedingamerica.org). She is determined to lower that number by getting food to people who are hungry. Her solution involves three main efforts: getting the word out, connecting to other programs in the community, and delivering food to people who cannot travel to the East Chicago pantry.
Getting the word out
Getting the word out means taking every opportunity to talk about the reality of people living in “food deserts,” areas that lack affordable and nutritious food options, such as grocery stores. “In the work that we’re doing, connecting with different people,” Acevedo said, “we find that there are little pockets of people who are in poverty in very well-off cities. People don’t know that.” Social media, articles, church bulletins and even casual conversations can help raise awareness. Acevedo said that she first learned about food deserts when talking with a friend. The conversation inspired her to get involved, and now she brings up the topic when an opportunity presents itself.
Connecting to other programs in the community makes a big difference in getting food to people who need it and preventing waste. “We really have to have a sense of community,” Acevedo said, “intertwining with each other, knowing what each other’s programs are about and how we can help the situation.”
The Foodbank of Northwest Indiana, a large distribution center in Lake County, Indiana, partners with Acevedo and the Catholic Charities pantry. The pantry receives three categories of food from the Foodbank: United States Department of Agriculture food, which comes directly from the federal government; “menu order,” which is surplus food from a manufacturer; and “retail order,” which is “rescued” food from stores like Walmart, Target, Jewel or Sam’s Club.
“The Foodbank is rescuing all that food from going into a landfill,” Acevedo said. “And that food is coming to us, to our pantry here at Catholic Charities, to give out to people who are in need, who are hungry, who maybe lost a job and can’t feed their family at the moment.”
Carrying food to the people
Even with the best resources available to them, some people still cannot access affordable and nutritious food or get to the East Chicago pantry. The reasons include living in a rural area, lack of transportation, being homebound and tight work schedules that do not allow travel. Acevedo recognized the problem. “People can’t get to us,” Acevedo said, “so I need to get to them. And I thought how could I do it? That’s how I started the pop-up pantry and the mobile pantry.”
The pop-up pantry happens two times a month or “when I feel that God is leading me to it,” Acevedo said. She loads her car with 25 bags of groceries and cases of fruits or vegetables, and then she transports the food to different communities unannounced. Acevedo parks in front of municipal buildings, schools or parks, and gives bags to anyone who wants them.
The mobile pantry takes place four times a month, once every week at locations placed strategically in the north, south, east and west of Lake County. Acevedo brings 10 to 50 bags of groceries with her and distributes them at the same mobile sites every month.
Everything is connected
All the efforts Acevedo makes to feed people who are hungry and to prevent waste are grounded in the Catholic faith, which proclaims the dignity of each human being and the value of the earth. Her efforts also reflect the vision of Laudato Sí: “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society” (No. 91).
The people who encounter Acevedo may or may not have the pope’s encyclical in mind, but they know they are valued and welcomed. One young adult struggling with homelessness expressed as much on a recent trip to the pantry: “I feel like this is grandma’s house, because grandma is always home, she’s always welcoming you, and there’s always food to eat.”