In an era where Muslims are scrutinized in the wake of brutal terrorist attacks, it becomes crucial for them to demonstrate the peaceful nature of Islam to ward off stereotyping. Efforts to do so are displayed by countless Islamic organizations, who dedicate themselves to assisting victims of poverty. The founders of the Salaam Food Pantry reflected this vision when they first opened their doors on April 28th, 2016.
At first glance, this food pantry may appear to be similar to homeless shelters situated across the Bay Area. However, what makes the Salaam Food Pantry unique is their target to low-income families as opposed to the homeless. Naseer Irfan, founder of Salaam Food Pantry mentions that their intention is to support the residents of the Irvington community and close by vicinity. People such as veterans, single parents, and impoverished families who struggle to pay for their rent or food are among the crowd Irfan tries to reach out to.
The process of maintaining the pantry is a collaborative volunteer based effort. All essential non-perishable food items such as: pasta, oatmeal cereal, rice, cooking oil, tuna, peanut butter, canned soup, canned vegetables, crackers, tomato sauce are purchased ahead and bagged by volunteers and transported to Islamic Center of Fremont. Some community members purchase fresh apples, bananas, oranges, pears, carrots, celery, potatoes and onions for early drop off. Bread and bakery items are donated as a courtesy of Centro de Servicios in Union City, they are picked up a day before the distribution. Besides the mosque, community churches have also voiced their support by advertising the food pantry to those who may be interested.
Other active participants include the massive amount of volunteers frequenting the pantry. They are accounted for on the mornings before the pantry opens (the fourth Saturday of every month) when they rush to set up canopies, tables and chairs in courtyard to provide a dining area. Volunteers help with many activities including packaging items and other perishable products into bags for distribution. These bags are then arranged onto a table, where visitors can easily pick it up alongside a warm meal. They then have the option of consuming it on site or take it to go.
Although adults are a crucial piece towards the success of the pantry, Irfan stresses the importance of youth involvement. Students from across elementary, middle, and high schools are encouraged to partake in the activities that ultimately result in a thriving food pantry. For example, some kids take on the role of registration. When folks start to trickle in, these children guide them towards the registration area, where they jot down their names, emails, and phone numbers. The reason behind asking for personal information is so that these individuals can be easily notified of future pantry openings.
The youth also choreographed a winter drive inspired by “Make a Difference Day”. They distributed adorned boxes to multiple schools, mosques, and companies where their parents work. Afterwards, they promoted the drive through social media and in-person, accepting donations of socks, hats, and gloves. Within a span of three weeks, a combined total of 1,183 socks, hats, and gloves were collected. These clothing pieces were meant to be transferred to Abode Homeless Shelter and the city. Prior to doing so, they were exhibited at the pantry on October 28th for the needy to help themselves to. The mayor of Fremont herself, Lily Mei, arrived at the scene to examine the bustling pantry and the drive. The kids engaged in this event all had smiles plastered on their faces as there is a sheer joy associated with aiding the less fortunate. By including them in humanitarian projects, Irfan hopes to empower children so that they can take the initiative to start their own beneficial programs in the future.
Unlike soup kitchens and other homeless shelters, the Salaam Food Pantry lacks long lines of people expecting a tray of food. The pantry’s aim is to accommodate for its neighbors, so instead of forcing individuals to come at a specific time a three-hour window is enforced. From ten in the morning to one in the afternoon, people flock to the shelter at their own pace. The goal is to cater to families who yearn to complete their errands but also desire to visit the pantry.
Since its launch, the Salaam Food Pantry has successfully served the underprivileged community members while at the same time presenting Islamic virtues of tending to one’s neighbors. This organization dreams to expand the pantry so that people are yielded food on a weekly basis rather than monthly. Irfan also expressed another one of his ambitions, which is to have other mosques replicate the pantry in order to take care of needy families in their own communities. Striving to fulfill these aspirations will certainly be a long journey. However, with the enormous positive influence that the pantry already has on society, it is thrilling to envision the even larger impact Salaam Food Pantry can have as it continues to develop.
By – Iram Morshed