North Kingstown Food Pantry manager learns skills from URI’s Food Recovery for Rhode Island program

Stephen Souls helps distribute up to 1,500 pounds of produce each week

KINGSTON, R.I. – Nov. 9, 2023 — It’s just after 10 a.m. on a Thursday, and 20 cars snake their way along the edge of a residential street. In a parking lot, long tables holding labeled boxes of fresh produce have been set up beneath a canopy. There is a palpable rise in energy as volunteers hustle back and forth, a steady stream of jokes traded among them even as they bring out one more box.

A volunteer in a ragged straw hat and yellow traffic vest stands amid traffic cones blocking the driveway. Finally, Stephen Souls, operations director of the North Kingstown Food Pantry, 445 School Street, calls out to the traffic volunteer that it’s time, and he moves the traffic cones to one side as the first two cars turn into the tiny parking lot. The people scan the tables for favorites as they are greeted by the volunteer staff.

Stephen Souls, North Kingstown Food Pantry operations director

“We do this rain, shine, snow, cold weather. We distribute 1,000 to 1,500 pounds of fresh produce every week.” Souls spent his formative years in the 1980s as a Rhody Ram, including being in That Ram Band. It was his discovery of the University of Rhode Island’s Food Recovery for Rhode Island program that brought him back to campus, and he’s working to bring newly acquired skills to the pantry. The food recovery program is part of URI’s Cooperative Extension.

He’s been at the pantry for more than five years, after the pantry’s board decided the organization was in dire need of a full-time professional to keep the enterprise running. Days like this still excite for him. “We’re helping a hundred families here today. Almost all the clients are eligible for assistance of some kind.”

The pantry is in a refurbished school. Known locally as “the little red schoolhouse,” it’s 150 years old. In one storage room, a blackboard and chalk ledge are still visible. It’s only about 5 feet from the floor to the top of the chalk board, and it’s easy to envision children from days gone by standing at the board and practicing their addition.

Souls says he had been to food recovery class the day before, where he learned the fine art of canning and pickling. “The class is everything I thought it would be. It’s very hands-on. And I’m bringing back what I’ve learned to our volunteers and our clients. That’s what I really wanted.”

He’s hoping the pantry will host some of URI’s food recovery staff for a pickling workshop.

Inside the building is row upon row of stainless-steel mesh shelves, as well as refrigeration units. Shelves each carry a label saying how much of an item is available, based on the number of family members in a household.

The supplies come from an array of sources: local markets, school food drives, and the URI Master Gardener program. Local animal shelters will sometimes donate their surplus pet food as well.   The refrigerators contain items like eggs, dairy, fresh meats, produce, and more.

“The food is leaving as soon as we put it on the shelves,” Souls says. “It’s been that dramatic lately.” Another room is reserved for Thanksgiving food baskets. “We’ve been collecting items since August. There will be about 400 families that come by for this.” 

Like the food offerings, the 60 or 70 volunteers are diverse: local retirees supporting a good cause; church groups; students needing volunteer hours to meet graduation requirements; and people completing court -ordered community service.

Souls says the frustrating part of his job is having to constantly worry about where to find food to stock the shelves. Still, he wouldn’t trade it. “I had been working as a Chamber of Commerce guy, and the food pantry is a member. When I learned that the pantry was creating the position of operations director, I applied for it and I’ve been here ever since. The job of operations manager is very broad: it’s basically doing everything all the time to please multiple constituencies.”

Frustrations aside, Souls is happy where he is. “It’s very invigorating and draining, every single day. Sometimes the path leads you to where you should be.”

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This release was written by Hugh Markey