BR residents thankful for fresh produce

Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND --  Volunteers, from bottom left clockwise, Fredrick Millican, 7, Fredrick Millican Sr., Julie Launey, Steve Spires, Justin Foster and Branton Moncriffe, place portions of green beans into plastic bags to hand out Saturday to Baton Rouge residents at the Food Pantry at St. Michael Episcopal Church. Additional photo page 5B
Advocate staff photo by HEATHER MCCLELLAND -- Volunteers, from bottom left clockwise, Fredrick Millican, 7, Fredrick Millican Sr., Julie Launey, Steve Spires, Justin Foster and Branton Moncriffe, place portions of green beans into plastic bags to hand out Saturday to Baton Rouge residents at the Food Pantry at St. Michael Episcopal Church. Additional photo page 5B

Shelia Holiday, of Scotlandville, filled two small shopping bags with fresh produce — everything from cherry tomatoes to pomegranates — as she visited with volunteers during Saturday’s Food Pantry at St. Michael Episcopal Church in Scotlandville.

Together Baton Rouge joined forces with the Baton Rouge Food Bank to distribute about 25,000 pounds of food to 425 households and about 1,7000 people just in time for the holidays, said Edgar Cage, co-chairman of Together Baton Rouge.

Together Baton Rouge is a multi-issue initiative that focuses on crime, neighborhood improvement, economic development and education.

Charlene Guarisco Montelaro, the Food Bank’s vice president of Development and Philanthropy, said the partnership was a perfect match.

“We could not do this without this partnership,” Montelaro said. “This is an amazing example of how a partnership works to get the food to the community.”

The organizations also made available fresh squash, string beans, sweet potatoes, milk, yogurt, salad mix and oranges.

Holiday said the added food will help her this Christmas season.

“It means a lot (to receive the fresh fruits and vegetables) because I’m not working right now,” Holiday said. “I’d still make it, but this will definitely help.”

“It’s a blessing,” said Patricia Battiste, who was joined at the Food Pantry by her granddaughter, Eny’re Whitfield, 9.

“She just loves fruit,” Battiste said of her granddaughter.

Barbara Dunn was delighted to receive her bags of fresh vegetables as she went from volunteer to volunteer, who placed the items in her bags.

“It means a great deal to me to get some vegetables,” Dunn said. “I love to prepare fresh vegetables.”

“I know I’m going to cook some fresh string beans, and I know I’ll find some kind of meat to go with them,” she said.

Without the convenience of the Food Pantry, Dunn said she would have to travel much farther — to a grocery store or a fruit stand — to buy fresh produce. Scotlandville has no shortage of convenience stores, but a true grocery store is hard to come by for this community of about 18,000, according to Census data.

About 89 percent of Scotlandville residents live a mile or more from a true supermarket, said Cage, who also is a member of St. Michael’s, which has taken on the task of leading initiatives to make healthy foods more accessible to neighborhoods plagued by “food deserts.” Food deserts are communities where a grocery store is absent.

“Scotlandville is the largest food desert in Baton Rouge,” Cage said.

People like Dunn feel that shortage.

“We need a nice grocery,” Dunn said.

Saturday’s Food Pantry was the last one for 2012, Cage said. Together Baton Rouge and the Baton Rouge Food Bank began the joint venture in June.

“We did seven other ones in the spring when the produce was fresh,” Cage said.

Before Saturday, volunteers had served 4,500 households and more than 15,000 people with more than 185,000 pounds of food in 2012, he said.

Since its inception, volunteers now have food distribution down to a science, said Together Baton Rouge volunteer Betsy Irvine.

“It was total chaos when we first started,” Irvine recalled.

As the line moved fast and the volunteers handed out the fresh produce without a glitch Saturday, Vernon Sanders, a Together Baton Rouge volunteer and the team leaders for James A. Taylor Lodge No. 78, said, “It’s a wonderful feeling helping. It’s one of the best feelings in the world to help someone else.”

Barbara Bracken, another Together Baton Rouge volunteer, agreed.

“I love it,” Bracken said. “I love helping the people, sharing with the people, and loving the people, and that’s what we do.”

“It’s good to know that people in the community are willing to help,” Holiday said. “It’s always good to have people willing to help out one another.”