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A mobile pantry driver learns that the little things can truly make someone’s day

Ken Johnson directs traffic during the food pantry at Golden Gate Community Center on November 17, 2021. Johnson and volunteers were able to supply over 500 families with food.
Jorge Fundora
Ken Johnson directs traffic during the food pantry at Golden Gate Community Center on November 17, 2021. Johnson and volunteers were able to supply over 500 families with food.

Ken Johnson is a mobile pantry driver for the Harry Chapin Food Bank. Before he started in 2019, he remembers seeing that the pantries were flush with food -- to the point that one person could pick up boxes for neighbors and relatives, too.

"I seen all these people getting their two or three bags of groceries and walking away with these big smile on their face, like, oh, this is it, I have to work here," said Ken Johnson.

Now, if a family needs food, they must come in person. And there’s less food to go around. On the day I interviewed Johnson, the pantry at Harns Marsh Middle School ran out of food. Just two months ago, they distributed 800 boxes. That day, it was 600. He says it’s disappointing, compared to how things used to be.

"And I would love to go back to hey, your mother can't drive, your neighbor's sick, here's a box, but it was getting out of control and there are pantries running out of food early," said Johnson. "Could you imagine if everyone was picking up an extra? Really it's to be as fair as we can be."

He says the most satisfying moments are when he sees the difference he’s making.

"You hand out food all day to hundreds of people after a while you could be like, I don't care, but this lady pulls up, and I said hey, we got a little bit of food left from the food drive and she said, I had no idea you were gonna be here today. I was just picking up my kid. She pulls the car up to the truck and I'm loading the food under her arms. And she says this made my day and she starts crying. She was so happy," he said.

Ryan Bell, A Reporter's Notebook: Flowers, food and smiles brighten dark days

Eighteen years ago, Ken Johnson, 57, quit his job as a sales representative in Minneapolis. After moving to Florida in 2019, he began a new job as a mobile pantry driver for the Harry Chapin Food Bank. In just two short years, he’s decided to stay until he retires.

For this story, I volunteered at one of Harry Chapin’s food drives being held at Harns Marsh Middle School. The first thing that caught my attention when I pulled up to the school was the number of cars. About a hundred cars filled with families waited eagerly for the food drive to start. It was 9 a.m. The drive wouldn’t start for another 45 minutes.

The setup was simple. Two lanes of traffic with boxes of dry goods, veggies, and juice and bread on pallets beside the lanes. My job was to guide traffic.

The sound of Ken Johnson’s whistle signaled the start of the drive. As each car came through, I pointed drivers to the end of the parking lot so their cars could be loaded with food. One by one, cars pulled through and families were given various food items. Within the three hours of being there, I must’ve received over a hundred ‘thank you’s’ and ‘God bless you’s'.’ All I saw were smiles.

Another volunteer, James Stokes, was a riot. He played classic rock on his phone and sang and danced. It made me smile, as it did for the people driving through.

I saw why Ken Johnson loves his job so much. There was something so rewarding in giving back.

The drive ended at 11:30, and Johnson and I headed to a Miller’s Ale House for the interview. He told me a story of a food drive that had happened a few weeks ago.

That day, Walmart had donated about 20 bouquets of roses to the food bank. Johnson had planned to hand out the roses to volunteers at the end of the drive. As the drive ended, he and his colleague, Jorge Fundora, were packing the remaining food onto the truck when one last car pulled into the school.

A woman was driving, and asked, “Am I too late?” Johnson replied no and suggested coming earlier next time. As he packed her car and marked it onto his clipboard, Fundora walked over and handed her one of the last remaining bouquets.

She was silent, and Johnson looked up from his clipboard. Tears were rolling down both sides of her face. “You have no idea how much I needed that today,” she said, and then drove away.

Looking back on his first two years at the food bank, “It still feels good,” said Johnson. “When I see people's emotions to the kindness of the food bank and the volunteers, it doesn't go away after you've been there a long time.” Whether it be boxes of food, a bouquet of roses, or even a smile, I was reminded that the little things can make the biggest differences.