A small woman with a big heart keeps Southwest food shelf going strong

Jean McGrath’s efficiency and strength help Joyce food shelf serve a wider range of people in need

From shoveling the walk, to unloading heavy boxes of food, senior citizen Jean McGrath is known among workers and volunteers at the Joyce Emergency Food Shelf, 3041 Fremont Ave. S., for pushing the limits to help those in need. "Most people that age wouldn’t think of doing (physical labor,)" said Carah, a volunteer (who preferred her last name be withheld.)

However, McGrath, longtime director of the food shelf, is known for her dedication and exhibiting energy and strength that belies her petite stature. Like McGrath, the small food shelf exceeds expectations, too.

Cramped into the side of a house owned by Joyce United Methodist Church, 1219 W. 31st St., just across the street, the food shelf helps approximately 1,500 people in Southwest each month, many families and elderly residents.

Church members started the food shelf 30 years ago in response to inquiries from people needing food, and McGrath has been key in keeping it alive for the past 20 years. She said although the quarters are tight, they have a pretty efficient operation.

Two decades of service

McGrath, an Armatage resident, said she first learned of the food shelf 20 years ago when she spied a notice in a church bulletin just days before Christmas, seeking volunteer holiday help. When she arrived at the food shelf, she said the scene made it abundantly clear that food shelf workers need more than temporary assistance. McGrath said food blanketed the floor, forcing helpers to carefully seek out spots to step.

The former Northwest Airlines reservations agent turned stay-at-home mom dedicated her winter months to organizing the food shelf. By February, she was asked to come on staff, where she’s been ever since.

McGrath said working full-time at the food shelf isn’t always easy. "It’s a challenge to get funds and food," she said.

When asked why she’s stayed on running the shelf for the past 20 years, she said she gets great satisfaction out of helping people. She said she’s had elderly clients come in and tell her they wouldn’t have made it though the month without the food shelf’s help. "After hearing some of their stories, I feel very fortunate," she said.

Bill Morton, pastor of Joyce church, said McGrath’s service has been invaluable and helped the food shelf to pretty much run itself. "It’s one of the most efficient food shelves in the Twin Cities," he said.

Help for all who ask

McGrath said the food shelf serves many individual clients, but also many families and elderly residents from nearby buildings like Horn Terrace Towers, on 31st Street and Blaisdell Avenue South. The food shelf does have boundaries that stay within Southwest; however, it’s not a strict policy.

"If somebody comes in need of food, we give them food. We’re not in the business of turning people away," McGrath said.

She said unlike some food shelves, Joyce has no financial restrictions on who can and can’t receive help. McGrath said some suppliers ask them to keep records, but that’s it.

Morton said he doesn’t get to spend much time working at the food shelf, but will occasionally visit with the people who use it and has found his encounters sometimes very surprising, challenging his expectations of people living in poverty. "Some of them are very smart people," he said. "I’ve gotten into sharp theological discussions," he said.

A food shelf employee, Katie (who also requested her last name be withheld), said most of the time their clients are nice and grateful, but sometimes there are lemons. However, she said, McGrath has a way of making everyone feel comfortable. "Jean’s got a gentle character," she said. "People don’t feel judged when they come here."

McGrath said people visit the food shelf for a variety of reasons, and sometimes they just want someone to talk to. She said their clients span a range of personal and financial problems. Often, said McGrath, money is too tight when securing a new apartment — paying a first month’s rent and a damage deposit. She said this is why the beginning and end of the month are usually the busiest for the food shelf. Over the past few years, as many public assistance programs have been reduced or cut, emergency food shelf usage has increased, according to Second Harvest food bank.

How the food shelf works

McGrath developed a streamlined system consisting of order forms, clothes pins and yarn to allow staff to get food orders and volunteers to fill them in an orderly fashion.

During food shelf hours, clients enter a waiting room and take an order form, where they can check what types of food they need. This keeps things they won’t use in stock for others.

The food shelf offers everything from milk, meats, flour and canned fruits, to specific items for ethnic cooking, such as canned coconut milk.

Through the years, the food shelf has also adjusted to clients’ needs. For example, she said, the Humane Society now donates pet food because her staff discovered that some clients were using their donated food, such as tuna fish, to feed their animals.

Major food shelf suppliers include Second Harvest food bank, the Emergency Food Shelf Network (EFSN) — of which Joyce is a member — and the federal government. All except the EFSN charge minimal fees for food and delivery.

Morton said throughout the years, the food shelf budget has grown to exceed that of the church, at $100,000. McGrath said the food shelf is supplemented by Joyce church and generous donations from groups like the Uptown Rotary Club, one of their greatest supporters.

In addition to financial donations, businesses and companies donate food and time. Upon my visit, volunteers were busy sorting bags of pastries and baked goods from Wuollet’s Bakery. Every Thursday, the Uptown Rotary Club runs the food shelf, and once a month in the summer, the Lyn-Lake Lions Club helps with a produce event.

The modest McGrath said it’s community efforts such as these that keep the food shelf going.