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Dedicated volunteer, 87, refuses to give up on Santa Rosa’s hungry

Monday, January 14th, 2013 | Posted by | no responses

By CHRIS SMITH

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Jeanne-Marie Jones doesn’t recall ever missing a meal, despite having spent a chunk of her childhood in the jaws of the Great Depression.

But, early on, her mother taught her that people with food on the table have a human duty to share with those who don’t.

“I never went hungry, but my mother did,” said Jones, at 87 a peppy, well-spoken retired public-schools office worker. “She shipped graham crackers to the people in

Jeanne-Marie Jones hands out bags of food to those in need as the volunteer executive director of the FISH food pantry in Santa Rosa on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013. (JOHN BURGESS/ PD)

Appalachia at one time.”

Jones’ mom would surely be proud of her. Jones works one long shift per week at an extraordinary Santa Rosa pantry that last year provided free groceries to nearly 61,000 people, and she puts in time virtually every day as the charitable operation’s unpaid director.

These days she works overtime as the FISH, or Friends In Service Here, pantry takes on the challenge of finding a new home. “It’s going to be hard for us, I’m sure,” she said.

The pantry was born in 1973 in a spare room at the First United Methodist Church on Montgomery Drive. For the past 17 years, it has thrived in an obsolete former city firehouse on Benton Street. All those years, the city allowed FISH to use the building for free, and it paid the power bill.

“We’ve been pampered by the city, and we appreciate it,” Jones said. “But it’s still hurting.”

Last year, city officials notified the FISH volunteers, most of them in their 70s to 90s, that they must move out sometime this year. Were City Hall to continue owning and allowing public use of the Benton Street building, the structure would have to be upgraded this year to comply with the accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

City officials have said they cannot justify spending that money on the old building, so it will be sold.

Jones and the other volunteers who distribute food six days a week could have decided to shut FISH down, declaring that it had a good run for 40 years.

Not a chance.

“We’re determined to continue,” Jones declared. “We just have to find a spot where we can continue.”

If and when they find a building that will work as the new home of a pantry that takes in and hands out more than 500,000 pounds of food per year, the volunteers will likely have to find a way to pay the rent.

Up to now, every dollar that supporters donate to FISH has been spent on groceries the volunteers purchase from the Redwood Food Bank for cents per pound. The pantry receives other free food from the annual drive by postal carriers and from markets that include the Trader Joe’s on Cleveland Avenue, Whole Foods on Yulupa Avenue and Safeway on Mendocino Avenue.

The pantry has for four decades had zero administrative expenses. Jones said one member of the board of directors has paid the telephone bill for 10 years, and a second has for 15 years paid the operation’s postage costs.

Unless someone donates the use of a building, FISH will have to begin paying for rent and utilities. Jones likes to imagine donors stepping forward to cover those new expenses. Barring that, the building-related costs will have to be paid from regular donations, leaving less for food purchases.

Jones and the other volunteers are taking on the challenges brought on by the need to move this year because they believe in the importance of their mission.

On the pantry’s busier days, Jones said, 70 or more people phone in to request food. A person or family may come in once a month for groceries, typically some meat, vegetables, fruit, pasta, cereal, bread and other baked goods.

“Some of them arrive totally hungry,” Jones said. “They eat at the door.” She said many of the people who rely on FISH are low-income seniors and parents who work but don’t earn enough to keep food on the table between paychecks.

She’s well aware of a popular suspicion that some, if not many, of the people who collect free food at pantries could afford to pay at a store. She suspects that FISH may have served a few people like that.

“I don’t care what you do, you’re always going to have a cheater,” she said. She added that it’s unlikely many people able to afford groceries would come and stand in line for the simple foods the pantry dispenses.

Anyway, Jones said, “I’m not going to worry about that. There is no perfect system.”

She’s certain that her mother truly did go hungry as a child, and that large numbers of people in Sonoma County genuinely rely on FISH for basic nutrition once their money runs out.

She said the mission has been fortunate for 40 years to operate out of a church and a firehouse, and she believes there are many more good days ahead.

“We’re going to hope,” she said, “that something special will happen for us again.”

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