'To serve and to be a kind face': How Family Promise's food market continues to support families in need

·9 min read

Jul. 14—Pandemic-imposed adaptations, supply chain snags and inflation haven't stopped Family Promise of Hall County from keeping its words to those who rely on the Family Food Market.

Previously confined to a single room that's now dedicated to backstock, the market — complete with shelving and grocery carts — claims a portion of the multipurpose room located on the far end of the nonprofit's campus at 3606 McEver Road in Oakwood.

The need "has definitely grown" since the market's inception in October 2020, Marketing and Volunteer Experience Manager Olivia Paul said, and remains quite high.

From 10 a.m. to noon every second and fourth Tuesday, clients can stock up on pantry staples — including fresh bakery and produce items that arrive that morning — as well as hygiene and cleaning products and, if they have little ones, diapers and pull-ups.

Although the Family Food Market and Diaper Bank programs used to operate independently, they've been fused to make it "as easy as possible" for marketgoers to secure household essentials in one fell swoop, Paul said, as some of them come to the market by taxi.

Upon their arrival, clients are checked in by a volunteer and assigned a number. When their number is called, they grab a cart and peruse the aisles for the items they need. Clients are asked, but not required, to bring a form of ID to help Family Promise track who the market is serving and keep an accurate tally for grant applications.

When clients are done shopping, volunteers assist with bagging and loading clients' groceries into their cars or a taxi.

Family Promise Family Food Market

What: A free food pantry for low-income families in Hall County

When: 10 a.m. to noon every second and fourth Tuesday

Where: 3606 McEver Road, Oakwood

More info: familypromisehall.org/food

The entire haul costs nothing more than the gas or cab fare required to get there.

Families do not have to be connected to a program at Family Promise to shop at the market, Paul noted.

"Of all of our programs, the Family Food Market is the one that has the lowest barriers, and that's very much by design," Paul said. "When it comes down to it at the end of the day, there's not really any requirements. We're definitely designed to serve Hall County. That is our focus."

On average, 50-60 clients are served each market day, Paul said.

"I'm not sure there's a word that can fully encompass how important, how powerful it is to be able to offer a safe space where people can come and shop for what their family needs without judgment," Paul said. "I think it's important, particularly in today's market with the great increase in prices on everything, to be able to continue to provide this as best we can, even though we've seen some struggles in the supply. There's a huge need. And if we can help clients offset their costs by providing free food, toiletries, hygiene products and (have) that income can go toward keeping them wherever they live, then that's a family we're keeping from ever becoming homeless in the first place."

By allowing clients to select their own items from the market shelves, the Family Food Market aims to restore dignity and empowerment to a situation in which clients might otherwise feel shame and embarrassment.

"Because when you start to have those hits, one after the other, you start wondering, 'What am I doing wrong?'" Paul said. "And it is a huge hit to your confidence and your self-esteem. That's why ... our philosophy is not based on setting limits; it's based on creating relationships."

When the pandemic reached a fever pitch in 2021, the market pivoted to packing food boxes to distribute on a drive-thru line, but "the minute we felt that we could safely have people move through here and have the space to do that without risking people's health," Paul said, the market returned to its choice-based format.

"It's what our clients love (and) it's what we love to offer," Paul said. "We feel that it empowers them, getting to pick exactly what they want. We hope that it also decreases food waste, because you're not getting things you're not going to eat; you're getting exactly what your family is going to eat."

Facing challenges, calling for aid

Serving families in Hall County hasn't come without its challenges, particularly within the last six months.

According to Paul, the Family Food Market has been struggling to get enough inventory from its partners, Georgia Mountain and Atlanta Community food banks.

"I don't know if that's a result of COVID, if it's maybe the domino effect of COVID," she said. "But we haven't been able to get as much stuff ... as we maybe once were. I think everybody's struggling; the price of food has gone up, and there's just not as much there."

To supplement some of the inventory, Family Promise is calling upon community donations. Donors can consult the wishlist on the organization's website. The majority of the items listed there are needed not only in the market, but in the shelter and day care programs as well, Paul said.

The market's staple items, which are sometimes difficult to come by and even harder to keep in stock, include rice, beans, flour, cooking oil and cereal — any items that families generally stock up on every time they visit the grocery store, according to Paul.

Donations of cleaning supplies and feminine hygiene products are also welcome; according to Paul, the market "would love" to offer more of the latter to its clients.

"That feels like one of those things people shouldn't have to fight for the right to have. That should be a basic good."

Donations can be taken to Family Promise between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday-Friday.

On the staffing side, the Family Food Market heavily relies on volunteers to operate.

Roughly 30-45 volunteers pour 120 service hours into the market each month. Collectively, they help Paul and another Family Promise staff member place orders and transport them from the food bank to the Family Food Market, stock and organize the shelves, keep track of inventory and build relationships with clients.

"This food pantry would be pretty hard to keep up with if we didn't have the volunteers that we do," Paul said.

To increase the market's outreach, Paul is recruiting additional Spanish-speaking volunteers.

"That's been an ongoing need of ours," she said.

Volunteer applications can be found online at familypromisehall.org/volunteer.

With questions, prospective volunteers can contact Paul at olivia@familypromisehall.org or 770-535-0786, ext. 202.

'Specialty shop' opening soon

In August, the Family Food Market is rolling out a reusable tote program created in partnership with CareSource.

Based on family size, clients will be given a set number of totes to transport their groceries, which Paul hopes will instill a greater sense of responsibility.

"The goal is not only for us as an organization to decrease the amount of plastic and cardboard that we're using, but we can also encourage clients to bring those bags back and sort of be responsible for those bags. It's a small way of incorporating responsibility into our program without charging people or limiting people. The philosophy is not to punish those that don't, but to reward those that do."

The market will be accessible to all clients whether or not they bring back their reusable totes.

Those who do come to the market with their totes in tow will get to browse around a new "specialty shop" filled with overstock items donated from an Amazon small business.

"You know how when you go to TJ Maxx or Marshalls or Home Goods, you sort of don't know what you're going to get, but it's a nice little surprise that you could either get your kid or you could get (for) yourself — random goods that bring a little bit of joy to your day," Paul said.

According to Paul, each crossroad Family Promise has faced has pushed the organization to get creative and work to build lasting community partnerships to meet demands when supplies run low.

"As an organization, we're always trying to look at our programs and say, 'What we've got right now is good, but how can we get creative about how we can better support our clients in whatever way that means?'" Paul said. "Always trying to achieve the best is really important, and then leaving the door open for the creative ways to do that — like partnerships with small businesses where something was going to end up in the trash and now we've found this full-circle way of getting the goods back into the community through a very positive way."

While each of its programs are tailored to meet specific needs, the basic goal of the Family Food Market is simply to serve.

"We're not here to judge, we're not here to make a determination on anything," Paul said. "We're just here to say, 'We've got food.' We view it as a chance to build a relationship. We're here to serve and to be a kind face to (be), honestly, whatever they need. And it's an opportunity for us to learn a little more about them as people. Then, through that process, through starting a conversation and learning more about the person — who they are, what their needs are — I can refer them to other programs, even if that program's not us."

For those who may be struggling to make ends meet in recent weeks, the doors to the Family Food Market are open wide, Paul said.

"If you're going through a hard time where you're seeing that the dollars you had before aren't stretching the way that they had been, come see us. Come shop in our market. Or at least think about it, because I know sometimes that can be hard."

For more information on the Family Food Market, visit familypromisehall.org/food.