A Client’s Choice Pantry in East Oakland Grocery Desert

I arrive around 10:15 a.m. on a recent Saturday at the Flunder Foundation Word of Mouth Food Pantry located at the City of Refuge United Church of Christ http://www.cityofrefugeucc.org/, which is in a mixed residential and commercial neighborhood not far from the Oakland airport.

City of Refuge UCC, where the pantry is located. Photos by Katharine Davies Samway.

Although the pantry doesn’t open for another 45 minutes, there’s already a line of people outside, waiting patiently and chatting with each other.

Waiting in line for the pantry to open

Some people sit on a nearby low wall, but most are standing. Some people have walked here and have collapsible shopping carts. Other people park their cars and trucks in the parking lot. They are guests of the pantry.

I talk with some of the waiting guests. “I been coming off and on for four to five months. This is a good church to come to. You’re able to talk. Like counseling,” says Luther, an older African -American man. I didn’t catch his last name.

María Alfaro and her niece are from El Salvador. “I’m retired, but the check isn’t enough,” she says, explaining why she comes to the Pantry. “I’ve been here since 6 o’clock. I wanted to be here at the beginning because the selection is better,” she adds with a smile.

María Alfaro, Rosa Aguirrez, Jonatan, and Rosa Lopez are first in line

At 10:45 a.m., Mady Willie, the co-director of the pantry with Darrell Ferrell, calls the volunteers into a circle in the storage/distribution room for a few minutes of prayer before helping the guests.

“The crew is light today,” she says. (There are eight volunteers and normally there are 15 to 18.). She ends her prayers with “Peace, blessings, hope, and mercy” and asks if anyone wants to speak, to pray for anyone, and other volunteers offer prayers. Then it’s off to work.

Volunteers giving thanks before the pantry opens

At 11:00 a.m., the pantry opens to the guests. To the left of the entrance is a folding table, behind which sits volunteer Tracy Jones, who welcomes guests and asks them to sign in—their name, how many people live with them, and where they live (most live in Oakland); the pantry does this for record-keeping purposes. Guests are offered up to three plastic shopping bags, but most people have come prepared with their own shopping bags and daypacks.

Guests are greeted by volunteer Tracy Jones and sign in

To the right of the entrance is another table loaded with frozen meats, which volunteer Vivian Sins is taking care of.  Behind her are boxes of more frozen turkey, ham, and sausages, which she dips into from time to time to restock the table.

Volunteer Vivian Sins taking care of the meat table

Down the corridor are tables loaded with boxes of fresh produce (e.g., apples, oranges, potatoes, carrots); household goods, such as detergent, fabric softener and wipes; and baked goods, mainly packaged breads and tortillas.

Volunteer Stephanye Lewis taking care of hallway tables

The walls of the storage/distribution room have floor to ceiling shelves, which are filled with a wide variety of foodstuffs, including boxes of cereal, milk, and rice; large containers of juice; cans of tuna and chicken; and bags of crackers.

Volunteer Omiyinka Oniaro helping a guest in the storage/distribution room

Guests are invited into the pantry in groups of two or three.

Mike Ledesma, a young man with a soft smile who is wearing a long black coat and black hat, is with his six- year-old son, Ian.  His mother told him about the pantry. “She said, there’s an awesome place around here where they help poor people.”

He looks a bit bashful, but volunteer QueenT’hisha has a way about her that relaxes people. “Are you looking for a particular brand of cereal?” she asks quietly and shows him what’s available. He selects a box, puts it in the small bag his son is carrying on his narrow shoulders, and asks him, “Is that too heavy for you?” Ian shakes his head and they continue checking the goods on the shelves.

Mike and his son, Ian, have just selected some oranges and a small bag of chips

“Are you able to hold your bag?” asks volunteer Leslie Silket of an older man, who smiles back and says he’s fine.  Throughout the morning, volunteers help guests with their heavy bags of groceries, carrying them to the exit, helping them fill their collapsible carts, or walking them to their parked vehicles. The atmosphere is quietly purposeful and deeply respectful.

“This is the best place,” says John Souza, who lives by the Coliseum BART and has lived in Oakland for more than 40 years. “They’re nicer the way they do it. The food is better than in other places. In other places, sometimes they don’t let you choose and the food is often out of date.”

The co-directors, Willie and Ferrell, are both volunteers and they opened the pantry three years ago.

Volunteers and co-directors Darrell Ferrell and Mady Willie

“It’s about serving the needy. Not just the homeless. Social Services takes too long. All the red tape, the requirements, the documentation,” Willie says, adding, “Almost 10 percent of the clients are homeless and the rest are in need due to unemployment or medical challenges. About 40 percent are African American, 40 percent are Latino, 10 percent are Caucasian, and 10 percent are Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American.”

Ferrell and Willie are both upbeat, infectiously enthusiastic people. They are very proud of the food in the pantry and how it is distributed. “It’s good quality stuff. We’re helping people here, in a grocery desert,” Ferrell says, commenting on the absence of stores where people can get groceries and fresh produce in this part of Oakland. “We meet people where they are. We don’t pass judgment on anyone,” he adds and then compares the pantry to going grocery shopping. “This is a client’s choice pantry. The clients get to select what they take,” he said.

Leslie Silket is a tall, striking volunteer who is a nurse, was born and raised on 98th Street in Oakland, and attended Castlemont HS. “I love serving my community,” she says.

QueenT’hisha has an injured limb and walks with the help of a walker, but this doesn’t stop her from moving around from guest to guest, ready to give a hand, search for a requested item, or make a recommendation. “I like helping people,” she says, adding, “There were times in my life when I didn’t have food and people were so kind.”

Despite having an injury, QueenT’hisha helps guests find items

Stephanye Lewis has been a volunteer for six or seven months. “The first time I volunteered, they had me laughing. It was a lively atmosphere. It was fun. It wasn’t like work,” she says.

I have been impressed by what I have seen and heard and, as I leave the pantry, I think I know why. The volunteers are helpful, patient, and greet familiar faces warmly, often by name.

Volunteers Vivian, Omiyinka, Leslie, Tony, Tracy, Lesa, Mady, Darrell, and Stephanye

And the guests value how they are treated.  They also like being able to choose what to take home and appreciate that there is a variety of foods, including meat. Very striking and moving is how volunteers and guests are mutually respectful of each other.

The Word of Mouth Food Pantry is supported by the Alameda County Food Bank and the Flunder Foundation and supports more than 500 people.  It is open every 4th Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 2 p.m.  It also serves the church community every 2nd Sunday after church, around 3:00 p.m.  It is located at 8400 Enterprise Way, Oakland 84621.

Author Profile

Katharine Davies Samway has lived in Oakland for over 35 years. She is a long-term educator — a teacher, a researcher, a teacher educator, a professor of education.


  1. What an inspiring story!! It renews one’s faith in humanity!! What a wonderful place! What beautiful people! Kudos to the founders and volunteers! They are truly a blessing!

  2. Beautiful, welcoming program and story (and photos!) with nice sketches of a gallery of folks. Thanks for letting us know about such a hidden gem.

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