Memories and lessons learned from the superheroes and ‘she’-roes in their lives inspired two sister-like friends, both born in September under the stars of Virgo, to act to address the needs in their community. LaVerne Mitchell and Carmen Daniels had a vision to bring food, safety and wellness to all in the community they love, and through their efforts the Valley Pantry was born. On a recent visit, Mike Eck learned, laughed and cried soft tears with LaVerne and Carmen as they talked about the past, present, and what might be possible in the future with the Valley Pantry.

Memories of food

LaVerne Mitchell with Hazel Wagner, participating in a Glean and Share event in 2019.

LaVerne reflected first on her favorite food memory as a little girl – a warm bowl of rice, sugar and milk. She was six years old when her mother went to the hospital to give birth to her little sister. LaVerne’s father made dinner and said “That dish is cereal. We eat cereal for breakfast, not dinner.”  So, he cooked up some rice and made some brown gravy.  LaVerne remembers that dish did not look very nice. She and her brother closed their eyes and tried it anyway. Right then and there – “Rice and Gravy” became her favorite meal.

Carmen and her brother were raised by a single mom. Carmen recalled going to the grocery store with their grandmother. As they shopped with their own carts their grandmother encouraged them to pick out what they wanted as they went up and down the aisles. “My brother preferred junk food and made his choices and grandmother said OK. I’m more of a ‘picky eater’, made healthier choices and fell in love with potatoes and still love French fries.” Their grandmother instilled the lesson for each to be “invested in what you ate”.

‘She’-ro / Supershero – a woman admired or idealized for her courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities; a heroine

Carmen Daniels

Who were their she-roes? Carmen’s voice quivered and tears rolled down her checks when she looked at LaVerne and said, “I’m sitting next to mine.” More tears, a sweet hug and a glance of mutual respect and admiration. “LaVerne is like a sister. I admire her love for community, her love for family, her effort for my hometown. Many times, … (she is) under appreciated. I value her work.”  Carmen then spoke of her mom and grandmother in glowing gratitude and thanks.

LaVerne reflected first on 7th grade teacher Evelyn Jenkins. “Ms. Jenkins invited the students at St. Simon Elementary School to memorize poems. I fell in love with how life plays into poems and how you experience a poem in life.” LaVerne also fondly recalled her 8th grade teacher Flora Alexander, also at St. Simon.  LaVerne’s love of poetry and love for English inspired her to originally become a teacher of these subjects to sixth grade students.

Both spoke glowingly of Delores Lindsay and her role in founding the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Services Health Center (now called The HealthCare Connection).  No task was too small for Ms. Lindsay. She helped clean the building when funds were tight, worked sometimes until 9 or 10 p.m., grew in leadership and taught “determination” to so many through her actions.

School Principal and Sunday School teacher Mr. Ector was remembered for how he instilled, firmly and lovingly, the sense of family and community.

Valley Pantry – The past

“The Valley” is short for Mill Creek Valley. The Mill Creek runs north to south near I-75 from Liberty Township in Butler County to the Ohio River. The area surrounding the Mill Creek near the neighborhoods of Lincoln Heights, Evendale, Sharonville, Reading, Woodlawn and Lockland is known locally as The Valley.

In 2009, the Hamilton County Public Health Department brought a pilot program called WeTHRIVE to Lincoln Heights, Lockland and Woodlawn. This effort led to the creation of food gardens on municipal and faith-based community land. WeTHRIVE inspired community self-care and volunteer activism.

During this time, LaVerne was serving as mayor of Lincoln Heights. In 2010, a program manager from the Freestore Foodbank brought a mobile pantry idea to LaVerne. A similar pantry was being offered at Allen Temple AME Church in Jordan’s Crossing on the border of Bond Hill and Roselawn. LaVerne and Carmen visited, observed and learned from this model. Thus, a collaboration between the Village of Lincoln Heights, St. Simon’s Episcopal Church, the Community Action Agency (CAA) and the Freestore Foodbank led to the first mobile pantry in the community. This eventually grew to include Carmen and the Lincoln Heights Valley Boosters, a non-profit 501(c)3.  The Valley Boosters originally focused on youth sports.

During the same year, LaVerne (with the assistance of Carmen and the Lincoln Heights Valley Boosters) launched the Mayor’s Citizen’s Empowerment Series, which included a program called Safety in the Valley via a child-centered initiative with Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Car seat safety process checks, free car seat distribution and safe sleep events were held. A prescription education program emerged and helped “child proof” homes.

The once a month program grew to twice and sometimes three times per month. The multi-organization collaboration grew to include:

Food Pantry + Car Seat Safety + Rx Safety + Faith Community + Voter Registration

The reality of the neighborhood being a food desert provided the motivation for the program emphasis on food and the growth toward and maturing of the Valley Pantry concept.

Valley Pantry – The present

The whole world comes together at Valley Pantry. The outdoor pantry operates about 10 times per year on Saturday mornings in the late spring, summer and early autumn months.  Between 150 – 200 families receive food each time a Valley Pantry day is held.  An army of volunteers led by LaVerne and Carmen, with support from LH Valley Boosters, the Valley faith community, the HealthCare Connection and the Cincinnati Freestore Foodbank make it happen.

Volunteers at the HealthCare Connection provide translation of English language forms to French and Spanish. Youth at Mt. Zion helped make T-shirt bags to reduce the reliance on plastic bags by guests. Intelligent Minds (formerly Nurturing P.I.E.S.) donates money each month to help buy meat, cheeses, beverages and feminine hygiene products for Valley Pantry guests. A recent grant from the Freestore Foodbank provided new tables, chairs, tents, a laptop and wifi hotspot to help modernize the Valley Pantry operation.

The host location rotates and participants in 2019 were St. Simon of Cyrene Episcopal, St. Monica Recreation Center, New Day Baptist, Friendship Missionary Baptist, Mt. Zion Baptist Woodlawn, Lincoln Heights Missionary Baptist and Lincoln Heights HealthCare Connection Center.  Additional community support included volunteers and resources from Ebenezer Second Baptist, Spirit of Christ, Mt. Pleasant, and Mt. Moriah churches. Revealed Holiness Church of God hosted separate Saturday Valley Pantry days in 2019 as well.

The host church is expected to provide volunteers, but people come from all over to help.  You find fun and laughs as neighbors come together to help and share. Nothing goes to waste. As the Pantry distribution ends, people are encouraged to take what is left home to share with those in need who might not have been able to attend on a given Saturday morning.

Always looking for new opportunities to grow and expand their ministry, LaVerne and another Lincoln Heights volunteer, Hazel Wagner, participated in a new multi-community pilot program called “Glean and Share” in the summer of 2019.  Gleaners go to nearby farms and harvest farm fresh produce to share back in their communities.  We gleaned oh so sweet corn at Burwinkle Farm and kale, rainbow colored swiss chard, other greens and stunning heirloom tomatoes at the Our Harvest Bahr Farm in College Hill.

The Valley Pantry held emergency Pantry days on recent Sundays in April. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted a shift to a stay in your car, drive-through pickup with volunteers in masks and gloves. The pantry is gearing up for the regular Saturday schedule in 2020.  Donations from greater Cincinnati and Diocese of Southern Ohio community would be greatly appreciated.

The future

A 2020-21 planning session for the Valley Pantry was held pre-coronavirus. Many ideas emerged to help maintain, sustain and potentially grow Valley Pantry.  Ideas included:

  • Recipes / cooking demos from culinary programs at Job Corp and Scarlett Oaks
  • Cooking classes from La Soupe – Cincinnati Gives a Crock
  • Additional Glean and Share to include blueberries, blackberries, peppers and more
  • Reach out to more local businesses for support, participation and security
  • Engage Youth programs in the Princeton School District and St. Monica’s Rec Center for training at Freestore Foodbank. See volunteers go to Freestore to see other programs
  • Expansion to include host location and volunteers in Lockland
  • Pilot the new Council on Aging (COA) – Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program at a Lincoln Heights senior community location

You can help support the Valley Pantry by reaching out to LaVerne Mitchell at lavernem50@gmail.com or Carmen Daniels at udanicm@yahoo.com. Monetary donations can also be made to LH Valley Boosters, Inc. 12095 Chesterdale Rd, Springdale, OH 45246 to allow for purchase of items such as food, carts, cleaning supplies, gloves and masks.

Mike Eck is a Food Justice Advocate and is actively involved in the local organic food movement in southwest Ohio. Mike and his wife Denise are members of Christ Church Glendale. Mike can be reached at miketeck@gmail.com.