Mecklenburg Extension Community Spotlight: Kenya Joseph, Hearts and Hands Pantry

— Written By Kristin Davis
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By Lucy Sams, Writer, Extension Master Food Volunteer
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes 

Photo and quote of Kenya Joseph

Photo and quote of Kenya Joseph of Hearts and Hands Pantry

Hearts and Hands Pantry impacts over 2000 families in the Charlotte Metro area and surrounding areas ( Mooresville, Davidson, Cornelius, and Huntersville) by providing essential groceries, personal care items, baby needs, and even pet supplies to people in need. Kenya Joseph, Director of Hearts and Hands Pantry, and the volunteers contribute to the day-to-day operation of the pantry with willing hearts and busy hands. The name is definitely fitting for this group of people that have come together to embrace the growing needs of our community during the COVID-19 pandemic. The pantry was started in 2017 and saw an explosion of growth during the 2020 pandemic. The client load increased by 500%. I welcomed the opportunity to meet with Kenya to discuss the formation and impact of the pantry and her thoughts on our local food system. 

Hello, Kenya. Can you please tell me about your background and how Hearts and Hands Pantry was started? 
I was in Corporate International Finance for 15 years. I retired to pursue a degree in Scientific Research. I moved from New York to attend UNCC. While on sabbatical from my pursuit of my Ph.D., my Mom and I spent the holiday together. We had the idea to start a food pantry. 

What about your previous background and skills have contributed to starting this business?
Business. My Mom and I have a ton of business experience. It really came from a place of wanting to serve and knowing we had this kind of divine inspiration that happened. 

What is the mission of your organization? Who do you serve? 
Our philosophy is that food is a basic human right. Our mission is to minister to the body and spirit of those in need. We serve everybody. We serve the entirety of Mecklenburg County. Delivery is exclusively for Mecklenburg County, but curbside pick-up is available to whoever can get to us. 

How often do you deliver?
We deliver Tuesday and Thursday afternoons every week. 

How did the fuel crisis this week impact the services you offer? 
It didn’t. Our drivers are very dedicated. There was no interruption in services. I anticipated that our curbside might have no-shows, but that wasn’t the case. Deliveries and curbside orders were filled. It didn’t affect us.

How do you decide what to put in a box? Or what’s in a typical box? 
We traditionally didn’t do boxes. Before COVID-19, our clients have always had choice, so they could choose their items. We would give an item limit. We have coupled food with personal care items since we started. So when COVID-19 hit, I jumped on our website and put a store feature where clients could go online and select their items prior to their appointment and receive the items pre-packed. So now we give them their pre-packaged selection, as well as a USDA food box. 

What do you think is the most important issue within our local food system right now?
Food access. 110%. Access. Charlotte is much more spread out. Charlotte’s transportation system is limited. Struggling individuals have a complete lack of access due to this limitation. The situation is dire. Charlotte is not a place where you can live comfortably without a vehicle. Food deserts are a true concern within our community. As a result, West of I-77, The 277 corridor is our highest client base. 

What collaborations within the community are you currently participating in?
We’ve partnered with churches. We’ve partnered with Needles & Sparrows soup kitchen, here in Huntersville. We are now part of the NC CARES system that started in 2020, so that’s a big partnership. Our coalition has 20 organizations in it. So, I have people I can call if I need something special. That also helps our pantry stand out because we may be able to assist a client with something more than food by simply making a phone call. 

Looking at the current food system, what is something that provides a positive contribution?
I think there is more interest. I think the pandemic brought more interest which is great for the clients and organizations that operate within this space. 

How is your organization addressing equity for the people you serve?
My role as a board member of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Food Policy organization gives me a bird’s eye view into what the discussions are, what has been done, and what is considered priority for our local food system. I have been a huge advocate on the board of “You need to know who you’re serving. You need to understand who you’re serving.” My duty, first and foremost, is to the people I serve. That’s what’s important. 

To find out more about this organization, please visit their website: Hearts and Hands Food Pantry

About the Contributor
 Sams is an Extension Master Food Volunteer with the N.C. Cooperative Extension, Mecklenburg County Center. Additionally, she is a travel journalist, children’s book author, and serialpreneur who dedicates her time to being of service to her community and enjoying the people she loves. Her motto is “There is ALWAYS a way.”