Supporting Food Pantries During a Pandemic

Charlie Schumer

Charlie Schumer, a freshman from Minneapolis, MN, spent his first semester as part of the Penn community participating in a fellowship with the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program. He worked with the Share Food Program, the largest organization supporting food pantries across Philadelphia and one of the largest independent food banks in the country. Since his fellowship took place during the COVID-19 pandemic, all of his fellowship work was done remotely from his family home in Minnesota. Below he talks about his experience with Share and what he learned through the fellowship.


You spent the semester working alongside the folks at the Share Food Program. What did they have you do as part of your fellowship?

In my fellowship I spent a lot of time talking to the different groups Share serves including the pantries themselves, both helping to guide new locations through the process of becoming a pantry or helping current pantries with their needs. I also talked to individuals who needed food and needed directions for how to find a pantry.  It was a lot of constituent outreach. I also did a lot of data work helping them with their processes and making sure that those can run more efficiently. For example, they gave me a project to collect the numbers certifying the non-profit status for each of their pantries.

What do you feel you learned through your fellowship?

I learned a lot about getting out of my comfort zone and working. I was able to learn good ways to communicate with people, especially anonymous people that I didn’t know and probably wouldn't talk to again. It may sound silly but just picking up a phone and calling people is a skill that I hadn't worked on before and so that was a big thing that I gained. Another thing that I learned was how to navigate a professional environment. It was a friendly environment but just learning how to have a good work ethic, asking how else I can help, and finding those different ways to be productive for something that matters.

What surprised you about the experience?

I was surprised with just how nice everyone was. Everyone from each side was really excited about what they were doing and really seemed like passionate about it. The people that worked at Share were very nice and very welcoming. And all the people of the different food pantries that I worked with were also very excited about what they did. They seemed to really value their work which made it a lot easier to really engage with what I was doing.

How does this fellowship potentially connect to any future plans that you have for yourself?

I think something that was really important about doing this - and it made me feel really good - was that it does have a big impact on helping the Philadelphia community and I feel like being a student at Penn should be more than just attending classes and residing in the city of Philadelphia for a few months. It should be about connecting with the community and this is a really great opportunity to do that and feel like a part of a broader community that's trying to help other people and contribute towards something greater than yourself.

Lastly, what advice would you have for students that end up are doing this fellowship in the future?

Really go into it with an open mind ready to do anything. The people there are very interested in helping develop you as a person and the best way to do that is if you present yourself as open to them as possible for any opportunities that they might give you. It’ll help you get the most out of the experience.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.