Chatham Food Pantry A Volunteer Focus For Martha And Ted Miller

By: Elizabeth Van Wye

Ted and Martha Miller. ELIZABETH VAN WYE PHOTO

If you didn't know it was there, you might miss it. Only a small placard marks the Chatham Food Pantry, located off the parking lot and behind a discreet door in the basement of St. Christopher's Church on Main Street. Chatham residents Ted and Martha Miller, who have managed the pantry since 2010, know that this place is an essential stop for the more than 100 Chatham families who depend on it every two weeks for the food and other supplies they need to get by.

Inside there are metal shelves stacked with food, neatly organized by category for quick selection. Noodles and tuna, sauces and breakfast food and bins of onions, potatoes and squash, as well as a selection of gluten-free foods, line the walls of one of the two rooms that comprise the pantry. A quick two-step into an adjacent room reveals paper products, detergents and other nonfood items. A large refrigerator, and equally large freezer, are stocked with eggs, butter, cheese and frozen meats including chicken and hamburger.

In 2010 St. Christopher's converted two offices for the pantry, which had been located on Route 28. Although housed in the church, the Miller's stress that it is not a church pantry.

"It is a community pantry," Martha said, adding that the 40-plus volunteers and dozens of contributors include many residents and organizations in town. It is one of eight food pantries overseen by the Lower Cape Outreach Council, which provides oversight in terms of screening prospective clients for this need-based service. They also work with the clients to schedule biweekly 15 minute appointments.

The Millers retired to Chatham in 2008 after vacationing in the area for many years. At one point Ted recalled learning of the Chatham Food Pantry and asking himself "how come there is a food pantry in Chatham?" He was not alone.

"People don't realize how many families are working hard but still finding it tough to make ends meet," he added. "For fishing families, those who work seasonal jobs, retirees on a fixed income, it can be very hard."

The Millers are both Massachusetts natives. With a break for Army service in Vietnam, Ted graduated from Norwich University in 1972 with a degree in math and education. He had a 30-year career in computers, experiencing both the "boom and the bust" of the industry. His last job before retirement was teaching high school algebra and geometry in Ashland.

Martha Miller is a 1967 graduate of Framingham State College. She followed her mother and an aunt into a career in education, serving as a middle school English teacher for 31 years. While at Blake Middle School in Medford, she knew of families who were in need. Martha wound up running a successful food drive at the school to address the need, pitting classes against each other for a fun and competitive event.

Moving to Chatham in 2008 they knew they wanted to get involved helping out in the community but also wanted to take some time to decide where best to plant their volunteer roots, Martha said. They had joined St. Christopher's and in 2010 they were approached by Rector Rev. Brian McGurk. "He was looking for someone to manage the transition of the Chatham Food Pantry back into the church from the previous location where the Chatham Jam and Jelly shop is now located," Ted recalled. The pantry had been moved to the space while the church was being renovated.

With their organizational skills, the Millers were a good fit to put the pieces together. The pantry is open year-round four days a week, two hours each day (closed Mondays) and more than 40 volunteers make it all work, according to Martha Miller. Volunteers typically work one day a month.

"We have volunteers from all the churches and from Chatham, Brewster and Orleans," she said. "We encourage them to engage with the clients to make sure everyone feels welcomed. We are blessed," she added, "we never have any problems with volunteers."

The busiest time of the year for the pantry is winter, as seasonal workers struggle to maintain their income. Donations to the pantry come from a wide range of groups and individuals, according to Martha. She is quick to point out that Chatham is a "caring and giving" community and cites examples like food drives by both the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, support by the Chatham Village Market and Stop and Shop and regular contributions from all of the churches in town. "One recent confirmation class at Holy Redeemer Church donated their Easter baskets," she said.

The Millers divide management responsibilities between them. "Ted does the ordering," Martha said, including stocking the shelves and organizing the drivers who help with the pickup of food from the Greater Boston Food Bank at the Family Pantry in Harwich. "It's a great service," he said of the 30 dozen eggs and shelf-stable milk as examples of what is provided at no charge. Through grants and donations, more than $1,200 a month is received to buy the meats and other items needed to fill in the gaps. "We avoid sugar-laden products and try to address special dietary restrictions," Miller said, adding that there is also a shelf of pet food and shelves for one-of-a-kind gourmet style donations.

Produce from three plots at the community garden provides a much appreciated summer supplement of fresh vegetables. Lettuce and carrots are already in the ground for fresh items this spring. Donors often drop by with their excess produce, including a gift last summer of fresh peaches and ripe tomatoes, Martha recalled.

Martha Miller handles scheduling and interacting with volunteers, as well as coordinating and acknowledging donations. The pantry's strict guidelines for what can be provided prohibit items like fresh homemade pastries. "All items must be packaged for resale," Ted stressed.

The Millers show no signs of retiring from their volunteer assignment. "When we started we thought we'd do it for five years," Ted said. "But it's fallen into place and now the pantry is a part of our life. It's selfish in a way," he said with a smile. "It makes our day to see someone who needs help get it. They smile and say thanks. How can you go wrong with that?"

To volunteer or donate to the pantry, call 508 945 1813.