A Healthy Hand Up

By TERESA HAMMOND

Big things are happening in the Airport District of Modesto.

While its small and unassuming location of 120 Kerr Ave., Modesto may seem contrary to this, Interfaith Ministries is mixing things up and impacting lives.

Serving the community for close to five decades, the Modesto based non-profit has seen a shift in focus the past four years thanks largely in part to the leadership of Elizabeth Greenlee-Wight.

Greenlee-Wight first joined the Interfaith Ministries in 2013, as a single mom, looking for a way to make ends meet without juggling multiple jobs.

“It changed my life,” she said of her employment with Interfaith. “It was life changing for me and opened a whole new world for me. There was no escaping my life at that time, working two jobs at $10 an hour.”

“When I took it,” she continued of her initial position as marketing coordinator, “I had experienced hunger. Hunger in America doesn’t look like hunger oddly enough, because there’s food available most of the time, but not healthy.”

The mother of two shared stories of trying to make ends meet shortly after leaving her husband. Short of resources herself, she had the means to feed her children and would then eat what they could not.

“When that wasn’t enough I would eat at my parents,” she shared. “That’s how I lived for the first six months.”

Greenlee-Wight ultimately made the choice to return home to her parents to create stability for herself and her children. Five months after joining the Interfaith team she was named to the position of CEO by the Board of Directors.

Within the first five months of her employment she recognized a void which concerned her.

“Healthy is not about education, it’s about access,” she said of the food being offered from the Interfaith pantry at the time. “Underprivileged does not necessarily equal desire to eat unhealthy.”

Interfaith Ministries offers its programs and services to those Greenlee-Wight describes as the working poor. The average household income of recipients is $1,200 per month. The not-for-profit is funded largely by private donors and churches of all denominations.

“I felt sick about it,” she said of the food being offered to clients. “I felt like I was feeding over 20,000 children a year food I wouldn’t feed my own kids.”

That thought in itself presented a personal challenge.

“I can do better,” she noted of the expectation she put on herself and presented to the Board of Directors.

The change has been effective. Interfaith now maintains a focus of providing clients with dry beans, rice, fresh produce, frozen meats like turkey and chicken, eggs, as well as canned vegetables and proteins. All products now must meet criteria of less than 500 mg of sodium and 10 grams of sugar for cereal.

“They’re really no-nonsense guidelines,” she stated. “This is not diet food or whole foods. It’s just food you would feed your family.”

The overall reception of the clientele has been well received. Recipients of the Food Pantry are able to visit once a month and are provided with five days’ worth of food, bagged by volunteers and carried out to their cars. There is also a Community Clothes Closet which clients are invited to take up to 20 items per month from, per family member.

According to the CEO, while the Clothes Closet may not have the same regular traffic as the Food Pantry, it is a valuable entity all the same.

Keeping her focus set on the overall health and accessibility of the underserved, over two years ago Greenlee-Wight began the Free Mobile Farmers Market. The grant-funded project offers fresh fruits and vegetables to areas known as Food Deserts, a term referring to areas with low access to fresh food, as well as low income.

“I wanted to build a cultural capital for children,” Greenlee-Wight stated. A vibrant trailer hosting rolling shelves is towed to varying locations for locals to visit and access its bounty at zero cost.

“It’s really important to me that it’s beautiful,” she said of the trailer’s exterior as well as the high-quality shelves used. “That it’s a dignified experience.”

In the first year, the Free Mobile Farmers Market served 10,000 at its three stops. The second year that number grew to 15,000, far surpassing the initial expectations.

“The need is much bigger than we can even imagine,” the healthy food advocate stated. “Twenty-four percent of families are living at risk of food insecurity in Stanislaus County.”

It doesn’t end with food and clothing for Interfaith’s CEO as she looks to the overall health and well-being of their clients. She recently partnered with The Body Positive to bring health education classes, as well as movement classes to her clientele.

“Primarily our idea would be to present this to people who are out of work, because while they’re out of work they can be improving their body and improving their confidence,” she said.

“I’m not sure what it’s going to look like,” she added of the program prior to it being rolled out, “but we’re committed to bringing movement to the Airport District.” ■

Interfaith Ministries is open to the community Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Additional information and services can be found at www.interfaithmodesto.org or call (209) 572-3117.

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