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Food bank caters with Latin flavor in mind

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For Natasha Lemus, serving Central Virginia’s Latino community during the pandemic was something that came naturally.

As the owner of Latin Tax Service in Richmond, Virginia, Lemus has become a pillar in her community. In March of 2020, when the pandemic started affecting some of her clients, she remembers receiving many calls asking for help and resources. She said people would ask her if she knew of any food pantries or if her team could deliver food items.

Lemus specifically remembers a woman who called saying that her family continued to test positive for COVID-19 causing them to quarantine. As a result, they had run out of food.

Lemus said she told the woman on the phone to text her a grocery list.

“It was just basic items -- tomatoes, oil. She was low on sugar, even detergent, to wash their clothes because [they were home for over 15 days.] And that really got to me. That really got to my heart and I just literally looked around my staff and I said ‘hey, let's do something, you know, let's do a food drive and help the community to give them what they're accustomed to eating,’” Lemus said.

Out of that conversation, grew something not even Lemus could have envisioned. She started a food pantry with the Latino community in mind.

At first, she started buying staple items she ate at home to give away at food drives in the alley behind her tax business. She advertised on Facebook and families started lining up to receive food. The demand has not stopped since.

In 2021, Lemus opened Waymakers Foundation to keep serving those facing food insecurity. The foundation serves over 600 families a month and provides them with groceries intended to last up to 15 days. The foundation also assists families who need emergency relief assistance and community resources.

mural
Mural in the Waymakers Foundation. Photo: Keyris Manzanares

“Waymakers Foundation, it came from a preaching that I was listening to. I have always said, there is a way to a problem, to a solution, no matter what it is, there is a way. But I have noticed that I don't do that by myself. There's always people with me. So that's when I say, well, we find a way. And we have makers. So, everyone that comes in here and pitches in your time are Waymakers. They're making ways for others,” Lemus explained.

And with the help of Feed More, Lemus has been able to change the game for food pantries and shift perspectives.

“I don't feel like you have to come into a pantry and just get what you have received. I think you can come into a pantry and get what you need and feel like you just left the top grocery store of Kroger or Publix,” Lemus said. “That's what I feel that is supplementing, that's what I feel that should be at a pantry or food bank where people can come in and actually get what they need.”

Lemus said that when she started working with Feed More, it was challenging because although she could purchase food at a lower cost, she didn’t always feel like they knew what her community ate.

“In the beginning, we're getting like sprouts, spinach, kale. And when I've looked at it, and I'm like, ‘Oh, God, what I'm going to do with this,’ you know, because even though I could probably use it at home, I know what to do with it. But the community I serve doesn't. It doesn't matter how healthy I present the product,” Lemus said.

Lemus has had first-hand experience with this problem.

When Lemus was eight years old, she and her parents migrated from the Dominican Republic to the United States. Like many first-generation families, Lemus faced economic hardships.

She remembers what it felt like to be hungry and go to a pantry with her mother only to receive food and non-perishable items that were foreign to them. She said this is an obstacle that has persisted over the years, stemming from a misconception that if you are in need, you take what is given to you – no questions asked.

tropical fruit
Waymakers Foundation serves tropical fruit that Latinos are more accustomed to eating. Photo: Keyris Manzanares

As a solution, Lemus said she started working closely with the Feed More staff assigned to her agency. She asked if they could get different produce like tomatoes, green bell peppers, cabbage and when it came to fruit a more tropical variety like pineapple, mango, papaya and bananas.

“Little by little it has just been a complete transformation of like the best produce you can get. So, every single time for the past six, seven months, Feed More has learned to be more diverse in the produce and even the non-perishable products they're bringing in. So, I can be able to serve the families the right way,” Lemus said. “I get excited every single time a truck comes in. And I see that we're getting fresh oranges, that we're getting plantains, that we're getting cabbage, because plantain — it's bread and butter for the Latino community.”

To pantries across the state, Lemus said she would like to see them analyze the communities they are serving so they can help serve the community better.

“That's the only way we're going to build a healthy community. If we understand [and] collect enough demographic information, to be able to learn about who we are serving and what we can provide,” Lemus said.

Waymakers Foundation is always in need of volunteers. To learn more about the foundation or to donate your time, click here.


TRANSCRIPT

Natasha Lemus: Why Waymakers? Because there has to be something different. Something that lifts the voice of the Latino community and that has that Hispanic representation. Because there isn’t one. And sometimes what the work entails and that’s why this food bank is here.

Waymakers Foundation, it came from a preaching that I was listening to. I have always said there is a way to a problem to a solution no matter what it is, there is a way, but I have noticed that I don't do that by myself. There's always people with me. So that's when I say, well, we find a way and we have "makers," so everyone that comes in here and pitches in your time are "waymakers," they're making ways for others.

My parents migrated me to the United States at the age of eight. I always wanted to empower myself just because of the financial crisis that I saw my family going through. Economically in my country, I was okay, but when I came here, it was a little different. I had more responsibilities, I had to become a babysitter and I had to hear a lot of discussions of we're short on rent, we have to pay the car, oh the car's not working or we don't have money for this. It was never really in front of us, but everything echoes behind the walls of the house.

It happened with me when I opened Waymakers, when I started providing certain products that were more just directly to the Latinos. When I used to ask for donations, they're like, well, if they need it, they'll eat what there is and I was like, no, everybody eats differently. That's what we're all from different countries, different tastes. You know, diversity involves culture. You know, what you eat, what you listen to, everything's different. If my mom could come, if I can go back to when I was eight or nine, and my mom will walk in to a food pantry or food bank that will provide plantains, that will provide beans, that will provide a papaya, that will provide anything like that. I'm pretty sure my mom would have saved $150, $200, that week and could have paid the light bill on time.

My experience for generations, not just me but anyone else born after, before, I think have experienced almost the same. When you are from a different country and coming to get a resource as essential as food, picking up something that you're not accustomed to eating. We have carambola, which is start fruit, we have plantains, we have papaya, we have cilantro, we have onions, potatoes, oranges, green bell peppers.

We have fresh meats, chicken, pork, beef. I think in any Latino family, depending on where you're from you can make something out of that. Dignity to me is to be served equally. So when I serve food here, I feel like I serve it with dignity because anything that it's in here I will take it back home and use it for myself and give it to my kids.