Not Just Numbers in a Dataset: Evaluating Food Pantry Programs in Knoxville

Landy LinEmerson, Field

Above: Landy Lin, 29th Class Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellow, outside Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee.

I, like many of the other Bill Emerson National Hunger Fellows, was anxiously counting down the days until September 7th, the first day of the field placement portion of our fellowship. I was excited, nervous, and every other feeling in between when I learned that I would be placed at the Wesley House Community Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. While I grew up in the neighboring state of Kentucky and attended undergrad just a couple hours north of Knoxville, I still felt unprepared to move to a new city. My anxieties were eased after seeing the other fellows’ stream of supportive messages as we all got ready for the next five and a half months.

The Wesley House Community Center is an organization with over 117 years of history in the Beaumont, Lonsdale, and Mechanicsville neighborhoods of Knoxville. It was founded by three United Methodist Women groups in order to provide childcare for the women who worked at Brookside Mills. Today, the After School Program is wellestablished and is one of the largest programs that the Wesley House operates. The Community Center also runs the Wellness in Senior Education (WISE) program for seniors who live within the three communities. The last major program is the Red Bird Community Store and Food Pantry where I spent most of my time. I prepared myself by researching as much as I could on the Wesley House and the role that it served in the community. However, gathering research on a Google Doc and actually seeing the programs operate in person were two different realities. I could feel how passionate the Wesley House staff members were, and how everyone truly saw each other as family; I was immediately welcomed into this community.

The Wesley House’s Food Pantry was created as a response to an emergency need during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. According to Feeding America, 11.4% of residents in Knox County experienced food insecurity in 2020. Furthermore, Beaumont, Lonsdale, and Mechanicsville have 16 retail locations that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, but only one of those is a full-scale grocery store (USDA, 2022). The remaining 15 locations are convenience stores or gas stations that sell food items. What began as small donations from neighbors and local churches serving a few hundred individuals a month has evolved into a larger program that currently serves two to three thousand individuals in a month. The Food Pantry uses a client-choice model, where the shelves and products emulate a grocery store. Clients can choose the items they’d like to take home; this preserves choice and dignity, while also eliminating the food waste that could occur from individuals being given a box with pre-selected items. The Food Pantry is also unique in Knoxville because there are no eligibility requirements. Access to food is a human right, and that’s what the Wesley House believes, too. No one is turned away because they lack a permanent address, a driver’s license, or because they already receive other benefits, such as SNAP or Supplemental Security Income SSI).

As an Emerson Fellow, I was tasked with assessing how the food pantry was currently being used. I was also asked to compile a needs and assets report on the food pantry through qualitative and observational means. My final deliverable was a best practices report with recommendations for reducing barriers and increasing access to the food pantry for all community members.

I knew that hands-on experience was essential to working in the anti-hunger and anti-poverty spaces, but I don’t think I fully realized the extent of the impact that nonprofits can have on eradicating hunger and poverty. Thus, I completed my work plan through a variety of steps and methods. I was able to visit and get to know over 10 nonprofits in Knoxville, each of which were fighting poverty and hunger in their own ways. The other food pantries that I toured and learned about also gave me different perspectives on how a pantry can operate. I was most comforted by how well-connected the nonprofits were in Knoxville. I had the opportunity to attend monthly Food Policy Council meetings and learn from stakeholders from all backgrounds.

Beyond the meetings and site visits were the hours that I physically spent at the food pantry, which I ultimately found to be the most fulfilling part of my field placement. The staff and volunteers that I worked withhave left a permanent mark on me with every conversation we had. The most memorable moments from my placement occurred when I helped unload donations from the food bank, stocked and organized shelves, and cleaned the pantry. In particular, the women that I worked with had all lived in either Beaumont, Lonsdale, or Mechanicsville their entire lives and were candid when we chatted about why the Wesley House has been providing programs for almost 120 years. Their answers pointed to racism, classism, redlining, and urban renewal: they were aware of the negative impact that specific policies have had on their communities. All three communities were graded “hazardous” by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation in 1939, effectively discouraging new investments and development in the areas. Decades later, the per capita income for an individual was $14,397 according to the 2020 census. In addition, the USDA has categorized these neighborhoods as low-income and low-access, where 33% of residents live more than 0.5 miles away from the nearest grocery store.

I find myself getting lost in the statistics and numbers when doing anti-hunger and anti-poverty work froma distance. My field placement experience did not leave room for this type of separation. Every client was a community member and friend, not just a number in a dataset. I had the privilege of getting to know people beyond the food pantry, where we were able to have important conversations beyond surveys and listening sessions. My time as a Hunger Fellow at the Wesley House Community Center pushed me outside of my comfort zone and further developed my ability to lead with others, as seen in the Leadership Capabilities Model. I was genuinely surprised by the friendships I found myself forming with the other volunteers and staff members. While we didn’t always agree on everything and had more than a few hot-topic conversations, there were always questions being asked and avenues tolearn from each other. Part of being an effective leader and change-maker is the willingness to step back, listen, and amplify the voices of those with lived experience. I know all too well what it’s like to be stereotyped and flattened based on my physical appearance, where I was raised, or my class status growing up. The most transformative part of my experience in Knoxville and at the Wesley House was the community’s willingness to welcome me by giving me space to ask questions and learn, while also speaking honestly.

About the Authors

Lin headshot

Landy Lin

Emerson Fellow

Born in New York City and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Landy Lin is a recent Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Centre College—majoring in Behavioral Neuroscience and minoring in Social Justice—who participated in various anti-poverty and hunger initiatives throughout her college career. One being the Bonner Scholarship Program, where she interned for three years and completed 1,463 hours of service. She also participated in the National Shepherd Higher Education Consortium on Poverty Program, where she helped the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers pilot a county-wide program aimed at reducing maternal health disparities due to systemic inequities. She is a co-founder of the Asian American Pacific Islander Coalition at Centre College, the first in the College's 200-year history—one of her proudest achievements.

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