Theresa Sandifer, head bowed in the prayer that opens every shift of the Shepherd’s Market Food Pantry, lifted her eyes when a late-entering client walked through the door. She motioned with her hand and made room for him in the circle.
On July 17, the market celebrated its second anniversary, and about a dozen volunteers took a moment to share slices of cake with about as many clients waiting to be served, but otherwise, it was back to business.
It takes at least 12 volunteers to operate the pantry — some preparing and serving hot breakfasts, some folding bags and stocking shelves, some weighing produce and other grocery items as they leave the pantry — “It’s our accounting system,” Sandifer explained — and some helping clients bag their food.
Clients are allowed to shop the store’s shelves just as they would at a regular store using a system based on family size — a certain number of vegetable choices, bread, meat and sweets choices, so families get some choice in what they take home, rather than just picking up a prepacked box.
It makes running the pantry more complicated, but to Sandifer, it serves an important purpose in what she believes is her mission, which isn’t strictly about feeding people.
It’s more about, as the opening prayer illustrated perfectly, making room in the circle for everyone in her community.
The affluent neighborhoods surrounding St. John United Methodist Church, where the market is headquartered, are just next door to the less affluent Gardere community.
“If you don’t use the interstate to get to work, you drive through these neighborhoods every day,” Sandifer said.
Sandifer remembers driving to work in cold, heavy rain one morning and passing a woman on foot wearing only a T-shirt and jeans.
“I stopped to give her my umbrella, but I spent the rest of the day thinking about it. Why didn’t I give her my coat? I have so many coats at home. But I didn’t, because I was thinking how I wanted to be comfortable at that moment,” Sandifer said.
It wasn’t long after that Sandifer volunteered for a spiritual retreat called the Walk to Emmaus.
The retreat is named for a story in the Christian Bible’s Gospel of Luke that describes disciples traveling on the road to the city of Emmaus just after Jesus’ crucifixion. A stranger joined them on the road, who, though unrecognized by the disciples at first, turned out to be Jesus.
Sandifer said she prayed to see how she could best serve God, and starting that night, a phrase kept popping into her head.
“I kept thinking, ‘Feed my sheep. Feed my sheep,’ ” she said.
She wasn’t certain what to do with it at first, but it wouldn’t go away.
“I couldn’t get it out of my head,” she said.
Sandifer has always been a woman of faith, though the Baton Rouge attorney spends much of her time in a more cerebral space.
Getting such a strong, clear message was a bit unnerving at first, but then she did some research.
“The food bank said this area was an underserved one, as far as food bank sites go,” she said. Their data showed that a pantry in Gardere could serve as many as 250 families per month when the market first opened in 2012.
“That number looked huge back then,” she said, “but then things started falling into place.”
The church, which opened 50 years ago, had run a day care center for 40 years, Sandifer said, when it closed just a few months before Sandifer got started.
“It was a heartbreaking thing for the church; at the time, it was such a big part of our ministry,” she said. Meanwhile, Sandifer was looking for a place to rent in Gardere for the market but couldn’t find an affordable space.
So, she asked if she could use a small portion of the former day care center for food storage.
Two years later, the market makes use of the old dining room for food displays, the kitchen for the hot meals it serves to clients while they wait their turns to shop, a couple of storage closets for extra food stock and the gymnasium for client intake and paperwork.
“I can’t believe how far we’ve come,” she said. The market now serves 355 families each month, including 550 adults, 600 children, 35 elderly and six people who are homeless.
It distributes 18,000 pounds of food per month, with about 6,000 pounds of nonperishables coming from the Baton Rouge Food Bank, and about 1,000 pounds of fresh produce delivered weekly. The rest, she said, comes from donations, food drives and community support.
Though every qualified family with a voucher gets one allotment of groceries per month, Sandifer said, the market gives out quite a few emergency bags as extras and keeps an additional allotment of donated goods for those who are in immediate need but do not qualify — like their clients who have no fixed address or who fall just above the income requirement.
“It’s hard to turn people away,” she said. “I read somewhere that you can measure the health of a pantry by the number of clients who also volunteer, and we have plenty of clients who volunteer,” she said.
No one is pressured to participate in religious activities if they don’t want to, she said, but several clients also have visited church services and requested prayer through volunteers at the market.
“We want people to consider this place a safe place, if they need it,” she said, adding that plans keep growing as they get feedback from clients.
“We’re planning to open a computer room with Internet access so people can come here to look for jobs or apply for assistance,” she said.
The market is a project of Opening Doors, a nonprofit started by members of the church to serve the Gardere area.
The market accepts applications year-round and is always looking for donations, food drive opportunities and volunteers.
For more information, visit the market’s website, stjohns br.org/food-pantry, or visit the market itself, located at St. John’s, 9375 Highland Road, Baton Rouge, open from 4:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. every Monday and from 9 a.m. to noon every Tuesday and Thursday.