Anti-poverty activist gave up her day job to feed the hungry
By: Maggie Craig (www.brooklyndaily.com)
OCCUPATION: Founder and Executive Director
COMPANY: Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger
CLAIM TO FAME: Putting a smile on a child’s face.
FAVORITE PLACE: Full Gospel Tabernacle of Faith Church
WOMAN I ADMIRE: “The Rev. Doctor Emma Simpson, assistant pastor at Concord Baptist Church, because of her ability to reach out to the community.”
MOTTO: “Why bring a smile tomorrow when you can bring it today?”[/pullquote]
Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger, a soup kitchen that serves 600,000 pounds of food to more than 12,000 impoverished Brooklynites each month, began with a simple phone call 16 years ago.
Founder and executive director Dr. Melony Samuels remembers being contacted through the family grapevine by a woman with a bone disease who couldn’t afford to put food on the table for her four children.
Touched by the woman’s plight, Samuels, a successful sales representative at the time with a doctorate in religious education, packed a box from her own pantry and drove to the woman’s home, unaware that she would soon be doing the same for other families in need.
“That box became a second box and then a third,” says Samuels, who was soon feeding up to eight families on her own time and dime.
Unable to keep up with the demand she recruited other like-minded volunteers and reached out to the parent-teacher association at her son’s school. By 2005, Samuels was helping to feed and nourish more than 350 people a week from a church basement — but she wanted to do more. When she told her boss that she was leaving her job to start a food pantry people, he thought that she had lost her mind. “He said I was afraid of getting rich!” Samuels laughs.
Her organization’s early teething pains were apparent when she noticed that some clients were bartering the food because they suffered from chronic conditions like diabetes, prompting Samuels to put on her thinking cap again. “We were not taking care of them as we ought to be,” says the New York Post Liberty Award winner who created a unique supermarket-style pantry to address the needs of Central Brooklyn’s health-challenged food desert. She began offering a variety of foods instead of uniform hand-outs, and provided more access to fresh fruits and vegetables — sources of nutrition that weren’t immediately embraced by her clients, many of whom were fast-food eaters. “There was a line out the door until 9 pm, but the Swiss chard was still there,” Samuels says. “The kale was not one of the things they took, the beans were still there, a lot of the cans were gone, but a lot of the fresh fruits and vegetables were still there — I found out that they didn’t know what to do with it.”
Samuels stepped up her community outreach. She instituted nutrition and cooking classes, followed by free tax preparation workshops, food stamp assistance, and — her pride and joy! — an urban farm, complete with a dozen chickens, a compost bin, and a beehive. “We now have free range eggs and naturally harvested honey,” Samuels says proudly.The group is as much a psychological support system as it is a physical one, according to her. “People make friends on the line, they’ll share information, and carpool to get here,” Samuels adds. “I’m mostly elated by the seniors, who go to the movies together and go shopping together — you’re building community one family at a time.”
Samuels tells a story about a deeply depressed senior who benefitted from helping out at the farm. “Now he takes care of the chickens and says he has hardly any depression,” she says. Hardships can bring out the worst in people, but Samuels has a way of turning their tears into smiles, attests volunteer Claire Lynch. “I’ve seen someone go from feeling frustrated and down-and-out to feeling happy and empowered because of Melony,” she says. “And she does this with a grace that I cannot describe to you in words.”
Dominique Jones, chief programs officer at the Food Bank for New York City which presented Samuels with a community service award in 2009, says the honoree is a community champion who keeps abreast of emerging problems. “Dr. Samuels is on the vanguard of many of our member agencies because she embraces a multi-faceted approach to address issues of poverty and hunger,” says Jones, adding that other soup kitchens look to the Bed-Stuy Campaign Against Hunger as a model for their own programs. The salute is a fitting testament to a Woman of Distinction who surrendered her lucrative day job to concentrate on the more rewarding one of sustaining her community.
To read more about the other women featured along with Dr. Samuels, click here