‘The best restaurant around’: The Pearl Street Cupboard & Café offers food stability, volunteer opportunities

Dressed in a grey sweatshirt and a Patriot’s hat, Joseph Mina slapped the side of a massive stainless steel industrial fridge filled to the brim with boxes of frozen food.

“That’s Besty,” he said with a smile so quick it almost slipped by unnoticed.

It’s one of many industrial fridges in the building, which, besides a large dining room, also has rooms lined with bins and shelves stocked with bread, potatoes, canned goods and various other foods. Some of this food has been donated by FSU’s Dining Services, and some of the volunteers are FSU community members.

Mina, director of the Pearl Street Cupboard & Café, a food pantry and café in Framingham, is a large man who speaks quickly and with a matter-of-factness that suggests he has often dealt with difficult situations but hasn’t had the time to slow down for much.

He ran the café and pantry on his own with the help of various volunteers, who he called the “lifeblood” of the organization, for the four years the Pearl Street location has been open – until recently when a receptionist, a couple of drivers and an assistant were hired.

“What makes our location unique is that many United Ways are more like middle men,” he said.

Mina explained that many other locations get funding from campaigns run by organizations or businesses in the community, and they deliver food and supplies to other pantries or kitchens that prove the donations are being used for the community members. There was a need for a “direct service” café, Mina said – a need which, in part, Pearl Street fills.

“With the Greater Boston Food Pantry, we found there was a gap, with people not being taken care of in terms of food security. So as a result, we opened three different pantries,” Mina said, including the Pearl Street Café in Framingham.

This location not only offers a pantry from which eligible patrons are able to take away a week’s worth of food, based on the number of people registered for that household, but there is also a restaurant style café where visitors are served a three-course meal.

Mina recalled a moment when a young boy, who came into the café regularly with his father, hugged Mina’s legs, saying the café was the best restaurant around.

Moments like that are very rewarding, said Mina, who used to be a high school teacher before running the café. He added when he was a teacher, he often wouldn’t know what impact he had on his students until years later. At the Pearl Street Cupboard & Café, he saw the impact his work had on people immediately.

“You see a little kid with an apple, happy to get some food. … You have good things happening every day,” he said.

Working in nonprofits runs in his blood, he said, referencing his father, who encouraged him and his sister to volunteer growing up. He gestured to the silver-framed picture of his newborn son on his desk and said he hopes the family tradition continues.

Mina had been laid off from his teaching job, which provided him opportunity to get the Pearl Street location up and running – a job that he only meant to take for a year. He has now been at this location for four years because he enjoys the work.

The biggest challenge, Mina said, is keeping up with the demand. In Framingham, 3,600 families access the café and pantry a year – about 150 to 200 families a week

“That’s a lot of people to take care of,” he said.

When a family comes into the pantry, they are served as customers are in a restaurant. They are seated at tables in the dining room, waited on and presented with a freshly cooked three-course meal.

Volunteer of more than three years and receptionist Sandy Dennis said the food served is “often very good. The gentleman who’s cooking ran a restaurant.”

She recounted that the night before, the visitors had been served rolls with butter, meatloaf, mashed potatoes, corn and apple pie for dessert. “What more could you ask for?” she asked.

Dennis recalled a man who came to the pantry who was living in one room with his sister and her child. Because they were not supposed to be living in his room, the man was unable to get a referral for all three of them to get assistance through the pantry.

He also did not have kitchen facilities to cook the food, so he wouldn’t take food from the pantry that he needed to cook, like pasta. “He had no water to boil or a pot to boil it in,” Dennis said.

He would ask for soup and canned foods that he could eat cold.

Dennis began volunteering after she retired. She said the people who come into the pantry often don’t take more food than they can eat, and insist that they give anything they won’t use back so someone else can have it.

With fierce admiration, she spoke about a woman, whom she guessed to be about 65 or 70 years old and who was taking care of her grandchildren – one an infant and the other about 3 years old. She came into the pantry regularly to help feed the children.

“That’s hard,” Dennis said.

Dennis added she often felt like she wanted to help the customers more than she already was. “There are moments I would like to give them a house,” she said. “But I can’t do that.”

Out of her own pocket, she buys toiletries such as paper towels and deodorant, for the customers, who would otherwise only be provided with food items.

Mina said as far as volunteers and donations go, “I don’t say no to much.”

Some of that help comes right from Framingham State University.

One nutrition class at Framingham State requires students to volunteer at the pantry for class credit. “The kids come in, ask questions. And it helps make them more aware of the situation in Framingham. A lot of people don’t think Framingham has a problem,” Mina said.

Food and nutrition department chair Janet Schwartz said it’s a requirement of the Community Nutrition class to volunteer at a food pantry for three hours and write a reflection about it. While students can choose to volunteer at a pantry in their hometown, many spend those three hours at the Pearl Street Cupboard and Café.

“Most students are fearful before volunteering, but after, they are amazed at the other volunteers and how appreciative guests are,” Schwartz said.

She added, “We are usually fearful of the unknown – that is human nature. These experiences require students to interact and provide a service to this ‘invisible’ population.”

Mina said there is a stigma that all of their patrons are homeless. In fact, elderly, families, veterans, people with disabilities and other individuals who are underemployed or unemployed make up the majority of those who come to the café and pantry. He said many people are reluctant to come to the pantry for help, and “99.9 percent” of them legitimately need the assistance.

Not many college students from FSU seem to come for food, likely, Mina said, because they don’t think of it or don’t know they would qualify for help.

The yearly income for an individual to qualify for assistance is $21,590.

Sodexo also donates large quantities of food and thousands of dollars worth of supplies to the Pearl Street Cupboard & Café, Mina said. The Sodexo Corporation has donated about 7,000 pounds of extra food since the café opened.

“We’re thankful for it every day, and we hope it continues,” Mina said.

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