Sean Ross shares food, brings hope to Mid-Missouri

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Sean Ross speaks with a client at the Central Food Pantry on February 26, 2016.

Central Pantry in Columbia, Missouri doesn’t look like a typical food pantry. The food isn’t rationed out or held in a church basement. Instead, it looks a lot like grocery store with aisles and shopping carts, a produce section, and even walk-in freezers for meat and frozen food.

It’s set up this way because of a “client-first” philosophy that pantry supervisor Sean Ross helped cultivate. The idea is that food pantry clients can “shop” for the things they want. Shoppers often feel guilty about using the food pantry, and Ross believes this set up gives them more dignity.

Ross has been the supervisor at Central Food Pantry for 12 years, and he has made revolutionary changes to better assist the clients he serves. In addition to rearranging the pantry to resemble a store, he has started a nutritional program and increased food accessibility to clients with disabilities. These changes seem small, but they have increased access to nutritious food in central Missouri.

“We have probably the best model of a food pantry that I’ve seen in our service area, and we serve 32 counties,” says Bobbie Kincade, the director of development for Central and Northeast Missouri Food Bank, who has known Ross for eight years.

Food insecurity in the United States continues to be a growing problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines food insecurity as a “condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food.

Income level is a significant factor of food insecurity. The last census estimated that Boone County had 16.9 percent to 20.4 percent of households living at or below the federal poverty level, which in 2010 was $10,830 for a family of one and $22,050 for a family of four. In addition, 13.7 percent of households in Boone County had low food security, meaning that these households reduced quality and variety of food due to low income or access. Missouri has a very high level of poverty and food insecure households, ranking 19th out of 50 states in food stamp use, and sixth in overall food insecurity.

“Unfortunately, we see a continual growth, and that’s because of the current economy,” Kincade says.

CENTRAL FOOD PANTRY

At the Central Food Pantry, families can visit with no proof of need, whereas many food pantries have more stringent need-based rules for assistance. For example, the Salvation Army requires multiple forms of documentation to prove need. The Central Food Pantry does not take such as hard stance.

“You never know,” Ross says of his clientele. “Some people drive in here with fancy cars, but sometimes people get laid off and they’re literally told at work, that day at 4 p.m. ‘You can leave now, you’re being let go.’”

And they can return regularly for as long as they need.

In addition to increasing access to food assistance, Ross also has worked to improve access to more nutritional foods. Ross began the Central Food Pantry’s first nutritional education system when he noticed a few students who stopped by the pantry regularly. He asked why they came in so often, and it turned out that volunteering at the food pantry was part of their studies in dietetics, or nutrition.

“So I basically told them, ‘Come with me, we’re no longer stocking shelves, we’re doing nutrition education,’” Ross says with a chuckle.

With the dietetic students as communicators, Ross started nutrition education for his clients. He started off small; for the entire first semester, the two students came up with different ways to prove to clients that wheat bread was similar in taste and texture to white bread and that their children would eat it.

The program has since evolved to be more sophisticated.

It’s not common knowledge, but food pantries often get food – or non-food – items that are discontinued flavors or niche items that don’t sell well in grocery stores. Ross says that baby food and nutrient drinks like Pedialyte or Ensure are common at the pantry but aren’t taken often by clients. Though nutrient drinks are similar to smoothies and baby food is similar to creamed vegetables or applesauce, Ross found that clients weren’t comfortable taking the products.

“They feel like they are taking it from a baby,” Ross says.
But that’s not the case. Infants and the very elderly make up a small portion of the pantry’s clients. Ross addressed this problem by teaming up with dietetics and food science students to teach clients about the multiple uses of niche food items. Dietetics students now teach clients how to use Gerber apple baby food to make banana bread, or how to use Ensure and strawberries to make a smoothie. In addition, the students make brochures, fliers, and printed recipes showcasing food that is stocked in the pantry.

“It’s become pretty much a fully rounded nutritional education program,” Ross says.

GROWING UP

Ross was born and raised in New Jersey and studied economics and erban development at Washington University in St. Louis in the late 1980’s.

He initially hoped to work in city government planning urban homes and buildings, but after college he ended up getting a job as a television sports producer. Ross had always been interested in sports, and his ability to name part of the roster of the Cleveland Indians in the interview landed him the job despite having no experience. And though it was enjoyable, after a few years Ross decided he wanted to cover more serious issues.

“I was always very serious,” Ross said. “Even as a kid.”

After doing research, he found that one of the best journalism schools in the world was only a few hours away from St. Louis and entered graduate school at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. While there, Ross covered the Columbia city government and the 1988 Republican primary while working at the Columbia Missourian.

Little by little during graduate school, he had a career change of heart.

He recalls covering the grand opening for a Habitat for Humanity house. The house hadn’t been finished by the time he arrived.

“There were still builders inside putting down floors and counter tops, and I sort of felt like, I was just this guy holding a notebook, not doing anything important.”

Ross began to get more involved in the community by volunteering and tutoring kids at the Blind Boone Center. He also joined Campus Fraternity House, a Christian house on east campus. Eventually he decided to leave grad school to work in more hands-on jobs where he felt he could make a difference. His part-time job at the Salvation Army led him to a part-time job at the Central Food Pantry. Less than six months later, he was promoted to pantry supervisor.

 JOURNEY TO THE PANTRY

Since he first came to the pantry 12 years ago, Ross has been increasing access to food assistance for all of Boone County, which includes those with disabilities. Some clients have special needs that can be hard to accommodate in the chaotic atmosphere of a food pantry. Ross opens the pantry early exclusively for for mentally and physically challenged clients.  For an hour each morning, clients in wheelchairs or walkers or who need assistance from caseworkers can shop in a less-crowded pantry.

Kincade and the staff at the food bank praise Ross for his work at the food pantry.

“Sean is a stellar guy… He’s laid back, which is important in the role that he’s in,” Kincade says. “He accommodates people of a lot of different backgrounds and a lot of different challenges. I think that Sean’s character and his personality is such that he makes everyone feel welcome.”

Two years ago, the food pantry and food bank committed to providing more produce for their clients. Ross lets clients to come in every day to get fresh fruits and vegetables, which is a big change from the once-a-month limit previously. The food pantry increased the fruits and vegetable product mix from 19 percent to 24 percent in only one year.

The food access problems that Ross has addressed are not unique to Mid-Missouri. Though the United States has many programs for food accessibility in place, such as the Women, Infant and Children Nutrition Program and food stamps, millions of people are still using emergency food providers like food pantries. Yet social safety nets such as food stamps are debated and reduced each budget year.

Megan Koch, a communication graduate student at the University of Missouri, has conducted qualitative research to understand communication affects society’s view of food assistance and those that use it. She interviewed WIC recipients on their experience with Central Food Pantry, and found that though they were happy the food pantry existed, they felt uncomfortable using it.

“A lot of times they said they felt guilty for using it because it should be used for people even more needy than them,” Koch said.

“Some of them felt like they couldn’t talk about using the pantry to friends, co-workers…and that’s distressing to me as a communication researcher. What is it about our communication that makes them unable to share?” Koch asks.

She surmises that the shame is a reflection of the larger discourse that surrounds government assistance. She even finds that non-verbal communication has an effect on the way clients at the food pantry feel about their experience there.

Koch has found that clients still feel uncomfortable, and the discourse surrounding food assistance is still negative. Ross and the pantry have made the effort to improve the verbal and nonverbal communication around food assistance to better serve their clients.

If you find it hard to make ends meet, see if you are eligible for Missouri’s Food Stamp program.

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