Working hard so no one will go hungry

Volunteer Emma Holt holds bags of food from Farm Share.

Volunteer Emma Holt holds bags of food from Farm Share.

It was fear of being bored in retirement that eventually led Emma Holt to volunteer at the Farm Share warehouse on Jessie Street, where she gives more than 50 hours a week of her time.

After retiring from her job in the claims and law department at Prudential Life Insurance Company 17 years ago, Holt first tried volunteering with hospice, but quit after two days when she witnessed the death of a baby and couldn’t stop crying.

“They definitely needed someone more stable,” she said. Soon after, she visited a friend at the food distribution warehouse on Jessie Street, and decided to dedicate all her energy to ensuring food gets to people who need it.

“I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is what I want to do. This is America, and with as much food as we trash daily – including me – nobody should ever go to bed hungry. People are just not aware of what’s out there.”

Her conviction that no one should ever go hungry, which is inspired by personal experience, drives her to arrive at 7:30 a.m. every day and sometimes work until 11:30 p.m. organizing volunteers and special events, such as holiday distributions, bagging food, and checking in clients.

When Jacksonville’s First Responders from the fire department, sheriff’s department, and highway patrol assist, she often treats them to pizza parties funded from her own pocket to express appreciation. “For Mother’s Day, I fixed bags for them to take back to the mothers in the community. I did the same for fathers on Father’s Day. Farm Share does the work and the first responders hand out the bags to the community,” she said.

“My father died when I was 11. Growing up we were struggling, and we never knew there were places you could go to get food if you needed some,” she continued, noting that she often brings the work home by calling her friends, as well as city politicians, for donations.

“We say ‘thank you for your support’ to the politicians and the agencies in the community like Atlantic Storage who have my back and give to me for my Thanksgiving distribution. It’s good for people to put a face with a name. I see so many people. When they see me they don’t say hello, they say ‘What do you want?’ I’ll say, ‘Harvest (Supermarket) has Jiffy (Cornbread Mix) on sale and I need 2,000 boxes for Thanksgiving.’ I’ll call my sister and ask her if she has an extra $100 to spare so I can buy it. In one day, I once got 2,000 boxes.

This year, Holt said she is making a special effort to meet and greet seniors within the community on behalf of Farm Share and is working on ways to meet their special needs, which are different from other hungry people in the community.

“Sometimes I have to walk down Jessie Street for a moment because I get so scared. Seniors say they have Social Security, but how do you live off $10 a month for food? They go to the senior places to eat a meal, but when they return home, often there is nothing. And what about Saturdays and Sundays? We tend to forget about our seniors if they can’t stand in line or come to a distribution center. Who looks after them if they have no family?” she said.

Sleeping well at night is one benefit Holt receives for all her hard work. And there is also the special moment at 5 a.m. when she heads out to a Farm Share distribution in a parking lot to greet single mothers with young children, elderly in walkers and wheelchairs, and other hungry folk who have stood in line since 2 a.m. waiting to receive groceries on a first-come, first-served basis.

“People who are greedy don’t get out of their beds with their kids and stand in line for hours,” she said. “There is always that moment of being grateful that you are not in that line. I always tell my volunteers that you are blessed by standing over here because you can help those people,” she said.