As a longtime volunteer at the East Bay Food Pantry, Emily Mushen knew the organization well, so when the prior director decided to step down, it was a smooth transition.
When Little Compton native Emily Mushen returned to the area after spending several years in Virginia and Southern California, she came to the East Bay Food Pantry looking for opportunities to volunteer.
“It was late 2019, and at the time they didn’t need any volunteers,” she said. “Then Covid hit and a lot of the folks who had been volunteering weren’t able to anymore.” She started right around mid-March of 2020.
At the time, and for several years since graduating from University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Va., her day job had been as a research analyst for the strategy policy division of an organization that does analysis for the Navy and the Marine Corps. With her employer based out of Arlington, Va., Mushen was working remotely before it became commonplace during the pandemic.
It doesn’t necessarily sound like an obvious segue to running a community food pantry, but it was.
“The day-to-day is very different, but the skill set actually translates pretty well,” said Mushen. “I was looking for something that had a little bit more variety in terms of the types of things that I’d be doing every day, and truthfully, the reason that I made the transition was that I was looking for a mission that was closer to home.
“I’m a mission-oriented person. It’s important to me that my job aligns with my values.”
As a longtime volunteer, Mushen knew the organization well, so when the prior director, Karen Griffith, decided to step down, it was a smooth transition.
“It was so great to move into a role where where I already knew how wonderful the staff is, and how great the volunteers are,” said Mushen. “That just aligned really well …They’re just such a wonderful group.”
Griffith, who left to focus more of her time on family, is enthusiastic about her replacement. “It was a difficult decision to leave, but I really feel good about Emily,” she said. “She has our mission at heart.”
Challenges continue to grow
“It’s been such a wild ride,” said Mushen of the past nearly-three years. The pandemic actually saw visits go down (due to restrictions) and donations increase. “Lots of people were staying home, and lots of people were getting assistance elsewhere … but we saw our our donations increase,” she said. “We saw such generosity in 2020, and and then that continued and continues today. It’s really been remarkable.”
Things held steady at those lower visitor numbers through 2021. “That really started to change this year,” said Mushen. “Pantry visits have more than doubled in number since the beginning of the year. We have new people signing up every week, and we have people who have been clients for a while, and they’re starting to return a lot more.”
On the supply side, inflation has not quite stabilized, and winter’s coming. The pantry anticipates increased need in the months ahead, particularly given projections about increased utility costs. “That is certainly a concern that we have, and definitely a priority.”
Connecting community with resources
In addition to providing food, the pantry works with community groups and social services to bring clients together with resources that can help with other needs — groups like the East Bay Community Action Program, that just last week had someone at the pantry with a table set up for people to sign up for heating assistance.
The global issues with the supply chain continue to plague many businesses, and the food pantry is no different.
“We just don’t have the reliable availability of the items we see when we go to the grocery store,” Mushen said. “The Rhode Island Community Food Bank continues to do their best to get keep the shelves stocked with the items that we’re used to having, but sometimes they just don’t have them.”
It’s an important distinction. Cash was (and is) king, but it used to be even more so, when the food pantry could buy food for pennies on the dollar. Then, a dollar donated could buy much more than a dollar one might spend on a food item to donate. That is no longer necessarily the case. The food pantry maintains a list of specific items they need that are in short supply, which can be found at eastbayfoodpantry.org.
“The community’s been so responsive and generous, trying to keep our shelves stocked with the variety that people are used to seeing here,” said Mushen. “So that has been a challenge, but it’s great to see those challenges met with such a generous response.”
While it’s a bit of a double-edged sword, celebrating the growth of an organization for which, in a perfect world, there would be no need, the East Bay Food Pantry is, in fact, growing and is well-positioned to do so. They are particularly looking to expand partnerships with local organizations and local fellow nonprofits. They would like to, someday, move to a larger facility, while remaining central to to East Bay community that they serve.
“Bristol is a town and a community that really supports us,” said Mushen. “I just want to make sure that people throughout the East Bay are aware of our presence here, both on the client side and on on the donor side. As we look to grow I think that will be important.”