A Neighborhood Improvement Journal - Summer 2017

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Food Between Friends

by Candace Brown

 

Patricia Erdman isn’t selling anything or asking for money, but she spends a lot of time ringing the doorbells of strangers, never knowing what response to expect—rejection, gratitude, or tears of relief. In April of 2009 she started a grassroots program called Food Between Friends, and with the help of a dozen or so volunteers, Erdman simply gives away food to those who need it. Some people find the idea so foreign they can hardly believe it.

“I don’t want anything in return,” Erdman stressed. “I don’t ask them for anything. I’m not asking them for donations. I’m not asking them to come to church or to pray with me, or anything, just to let me meet their needs. When you do that, people are so taken aback.”

Erdman doesn’t hide the fact that she is a Christian and says that, although she wouldn’t call Food Between Friends a Christian organization, it is based on the principles of Christianity. “We feel like God calls us to help people, but we don’t expect anything from those people in return,” she said. “We tell them, ‘I don’t care what religion you are. I don’t care if you don’t even have a religion. If you’re hungry, let me feed you and be here for you. You’re not alone.’”

Erdman and her husband, Jeff Erdman, have been married for 15 years and have children, two sons who are eleven and seven years old and a daughter who is three. She started the program—the only mobile food program she knows of in Utah—while working full time and going to school, in addition to being a mother, which is why she tells people that anyone can get involved. In a recent interview with Neighborhood Life, Erdman answered questions about her reasons for doing what she does, how she built up the program, and the impact she has seen.

Candace Brown for Neighborhood Life: How did you first discover that hunger was a problem in your own neighborhood?

Erdman: I grew up fairly poor, so I’m just aware that there are hungry people wherever you are. It’s about being there for somebody that you don’t even know, for no other reason than that they just need it. I tell them they’re not alone. I’ve been there. A lot of my volunteers have been there.

The biggest thing was educating people. When I started talking about people who were homeless or teetering on the brink of homelessness, I found that a lot of people thought it was just those who were lazy or hooked on drugs or just didn’t want to help themselves. They didn’t realize that’s not necessarily the case. Circumstances happen. People lose their jobs. Somebody all of a sudden gets ill. I have so many stories.

N.L.: How do you approach someone? If you see a family you think might be hungry, how do you get involved?

Erdman: You just pay attention and look around you. I was in the grocery store the other day and I saw a lady putting groceries back, taking them off her order. You could step up and say, “Hey, I have an extra $40, or whatever it is. Just let me get her the groceries.” She’s obviously getting things for her kids, things like milk and cheese and bread, and she’s picking and choosing what she’s getting because she doesn’t have enough money.

N.L.: It is one thing to observe the woman in the grocery store, but if you just suspect there might be hunger in your neighborhood, would you actually just go knock on the door?

Erdman: I’m constantly watching people, constantly looking for those things. If you’re looking for that kind of thing, you’re going to see it. You’re going to see the kid with the pants that are too short, or kids in the middle of winter that don’t have a jacket on or have shoes that look really worn. You just see it, because life wears on people when they don’t have the things they need. You can go down to the homeless shelters. You can find transients in an area, go buy 50 one-dollar McDonald’s burgers and hand them out. If you wanted to bring your community together, you could start a community garden. Or you could stand in a parking lot and announce that you’re going to hand out hot chocolate.

The hardest thing for people is to step outside of themselves and talk to a complete stranger. They don’t want to offend them. They don’t know what to say and they don’t know how to approach them. If you do it with a loving heart, then even if they turn down the help you’re giving them they’re usually not that negative about it.

N.L.:  So, even if a person is not involved in an organizational effort, just on their own, by being observant, they could intervene. On a larger scale, when you decided to actually organize a group effort, how did you go about it? How can someone get started in this?

Erdman: If you really want to start something like I did, then you need to reach out to the local businesses and ask, “Is there anything you can give me?” There are a lot of businesses that can donate. Even if it’s only a couple of cases of food, that can do a lot for a lot of people.

People think, “Well, I can’t do very much. I don’t have very much myself.” Well, I don’t have much either. I’m not even employed right now. We’re a single income family. But when you get a group of people together, the more people you have, the more you can do. So you just start asking people.

A lot of people want to help. They just don’t know how. They’re really just looking for somebody to tell them what to do. So, if you’re willing, step up and say, “Well, let’s call the local businesses and see if we can do something. Let’s arrange a local food drive.”

 

If you’re willing to step up, there are other people who will step up too. And if they say no, I don’t take it personally. I just have to keep asking until I find the right person. That’s my attitude. I just keep it going. If you tell me no, somebody’s going to tell me yes.

N.L.: Are those who help you also your neighbors?

Erdman: Some of them are. Some go to churches I’ve attended or found me on Facebook. Some are people I have helped in the past who now want to help somebody else, and some are strangers that I’ve met. I’ve had families who are struggling and need help, and the parents want the kids to see they’re not the only ones, or they want to show them how to give back and help.

All of my kids are actively involved. Kids are more than welcome. I definitely pair them up with adults and keep close track of them, just to make sure the safety is there, but I think it’s great for kids to get involved. Especially in this day and age, I think it’s great for kids to see how to step outside of themselves, to have empathy for others, how to be able to connect to other people. If my kids aren’t helping me with the food program, they’re playing with the kids that we’re helping. Kids just playing together really build connections and bonds.

N.L.:  It’s important for kids to find out how alike people are, even if they have a different kind of a house or look different.

Erdman: I teach my kids that when we go to these places, you never go to school and talk about what we did over the weekend. You never go to school and say “That kid is hungry.” The kids we help see that, not only did my kids help them, but they didn’t go to school and make a big deal out of it the next day. It impacts those kids. Hopefully, when they’re adults, they’ll understand how that can impact somebody’s entire life.

 

When asked if she had ever had any unpleasant experiences, all Erdman could recall was a case of a woman who appeared to be hungry but insisted her church would take care of her. In spite of repeated rejections, Erdman gently persisted, reminding the woman that help was available if she ever needed it. Finally, that need overcame pride.

Erdman: After about two months, I knocked on her door, and she was just standing there. I could just tell there was something different. She broke down and started crying, and she said, “I can’t believe that after the way I’ve treated you—I was so rude—you kept coming back to my door.”

I said, “It’s hard. It’s hard to accept help, but I’m here for you. You’re not alone, and I’ve got your box of food right here.”

N.L.:  That was as unpleasant as it has ever been?

Erdman: I’ve had people tell me “I don’t know how this is going to go, because I’m sending you to someone’s house and I don’t know how they’re going to receive it.” And I tell them that I’m really not afraid to go. This is what I’m supposed to do, and I’m going with a good heart. Even if they turn me away, I’ve never been offended.

N.L.:  How do you get the word out to people, either those who need help themselves or those aware of someone else’s need?

Erdman: We rely a lot on word of mouth. People will refer us. We have a phone number they can call and leave a message and it sends a text directly to me and two other people that I work with. We have an email account that sends a message directly to us. People leave us messages on the Facebook page. That’s also where I post when we’re going out, what we have, what volunteers I need, what donations I’m looking for, or that kind of thing. But a lot of it is word of mouth. You have to depend on the community to reach out to each other and to reach out to us.

N.L.: Let’s talk about how this builds community.

Erdman: It builds our community a lot. There are people who have so much and people who have so little, and sometimes the two social classes feel so disconnected from one another. When you reach out to help somebody, it really breaks that down and builds a bridge so people can come together. Sometimes people within the same social classes don’t even realize how somebody else close to them is in the same boat.

When you’re at rock bottom, when you really have nothing, when it’s hard for you to just feed your kids, you feel so alone. And that’s the thing; we don’t want them to feel alone. We want them to know they don’t have to do this by themselves. We’re all struggling with something. It really helps to have that community that can support you.

N.L.:  You have mentioned that, in addition to other individual families, you target low income, subsidized housing, where you know there are a lot of people who are struggling. Those are also neighborhoods, aren’t they?

Erdman: All my apartment complexes are like their own little neighborhoods. People know each other and know each other’s stories. When I first came, I felt like there were little cliques, but now people know each other, because they meet when they come out to the truck.

Some of them don’t even realize their neighbors are in the exact same situation they’re in, and they’re shocked to find that out. I’ve seen some awesome relationships come from that, where they really help each other out and come together as a community.

They interact with each other. I know they help each other. I have a lady who lives in one of the apartments where I take food regularly and she has hardly anything herself. She took her money and bought a small deep freezer to keep at her house. When I bring the food, she can take extra pieces of the dough so that if people in the apartment complex need it, if it’s in between deliveries or they’ve missed my delivery, she has dough to give out to her neighbors.

N.L.:  Frozen bread dough?

Erdman: Yeah. We take frozen dough. I have a produce vendor who gives me produce. Once a year we do a clothing drive. The first time we did the clothing drive, we didn’t have that much. When we showed up, we laid out the clothes based on gender and size. People took the clothes they needed to clothe their family and then went home and brought me the clothes that were too small for their kids. Then I had those sizes for other people. By the end of the distribution, I think I probably had four or five bags of clothes left. It was really neat to see that happen.

N.L.:  It sounds very uplifting.

Erdman: It’s very uplifting. I tell people, once you come out the first time you have to be ready, because it really tugs at your heart. You’re going to want to come again.

I show up at the door, and they may be taken totally by surprise. With some of the people, they take the food and appreciate it, but it doesn’t really hit you. And then there are other people. I’ve had so many who just break down. They say “You have no idea what you’re doing for my family. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this. I didn’t know how I was going to feed my kids this weekend. I can’t believe you guys are doing this.”

You have to understand that it’s a huge pride thing, especially for men, to admit that they need you to help them feed their family. I’ve had grown men just break down and start crying. I usually just get them to step outside so it’s not in front of their kids. I tell them, “You can tell them you just ordered this food. I don’t care. Your kids don’t have to know where this came from. It’s not a reflection on you. Everybody gets in a situation where they need help.”

N.L.:  Do you have any advice for others who want to try to do this?

Erdman: You just have to do it. Do something, anything. Pick what means the most to you. I grew up not having a lot myself, knowing what it’s like to be a hungry kid. I had proud parents who didn’t want to reach out. So for me, it’s kind of personal to feed people, and it’s personal to feed kids.

Everybody’s gone through something that really impacts them. If you know what would have made a difference for you, if you can figure out how to do that for somebody else, even if it’s one person at a time, then you can get involved. You don’t have to start an organization or have a big huge program. You just have to step outside of your own personal world and help one person at a time. Then you’ll start to make a difference. You don’t know how much you impact people until you impact them, and then sometimes you don’t know the full extent. Once you start to make those steps, things happen. You’ll never know the full ramifications of your actions.

Food Between Friends gives food to people in need. You can reach them at (385) 244-0089  or fbfutah@gmail.com. Please leave a voicemail when you call.

 

In the press:

Grassroots group provides free food to needy

Food Between Friends Delivers Food to Those in Need

On Facebook:

http://facebook.com/FoodBetweenFriends

 

 

 

 Photos courtesy of Patricia Erdman 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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