When you talk to Lori Noble, the word “tireless” springs to mind. As the Family and Community Outreach Coordinator at Evansville’s Lincoln Elementary School, Lori is the momentum behind the EVSC’s first food pantry, but Lori’s own experiences with food have been shaped over a lifetime.
Lori’s education in cooking and nutrition started early, sitting on the radiator in her childhood kitchen and watching her mom prepare meals. “Cooking is a thing in my family,” says Lori, and cooking for a crowd was a skill passed down through the generations. In addition to the meals prepared at home, her mother also worked as a cook at Welborn Hospital. As Lori grew, she was given more responsibility in the kitchen. She vividly remembers her mother instructing her to cut up a whole chicken at the age of thirteen. At the time, “I thought, ‘Are you crazy?!'” but Lori realized how valuable the experience was later on as she was able to use her skills to nourish others, both physically and spiritually.
As an adult, Lori worked for 15 years in the catering department at Old National Events Plaza and cooked for her own family of eight. On weekends, Lori would regularly help with dinners at her church for up to 50 people at a time, and she says her household hosted holiday dinners for extended family. Despite her then-husband working full time, feeding a large family didn’t always come easily. When money was tight, there were periods when Lori had to rely on food stamps and food pantry boxes to cover the gaps. Lori took pride in being able to stretch what they had to ensure the food was still flavorful and everyone was fed.
Lori’s remarkable work at the EVSC Lincoln School food pantry was known to Urban Seeds before the COVID-19 pandemic arose; but when Lori volunteered with Urban Seeds’ cooked-from-scratch meal initiative in the spring and summer of 2020, her cooking skills became invaluable in making meal preparation happen efficiently for the 350 people served per week. A daunting challenge for some, Lori brought her lifetime of knowledge to turn raw ingredients into crowd-pleasing, satisfying dinners.
Due to having used food stamps and food pantries herself, Lori brings a vital perspective to the Lincoln Food Pantry. “When people don’t have enough to eat, it’s demoralizing,” says Lori. She works hard to assist families that come to the food pantry with a variety of needs. “There are no perfect people. Families are figuring it out as they go.” To that end, Lori provides not only ingredients but educates families about meal preparation and offers a listening ear. “You can’t succeed if you don’t have fuel for your body and mind.” The food pantry ensures that families have that fuel, as well as the dignity and reassurance that comes with seeing one’s children well-fed.
This fall, Lori has begun a new initiative with the food pantry. Inspired by the cooked-from-scratch meals she prepared with Urban Seeds, Lori began to take a closer look at the prepackaged dinners on her pantry shelves. Lori recalls making tuna casserole for 350 people during one of her COVID meal prep volunteer sessions. “Up to my elbows in tuna! I got home and all my clothes smelled like tuna!” That week left an impression beyond the humor of the situation. Lori noted the additives in a typical package of Tuna Helper – a go-to meal for families with limited time and budgets – and “it really bothered me” that freshness and nutrients had been set aside for the sake of convenience. Lori got to work researching 30-minute, stovetop meals for beef stroganoff, hamburger dinner, and tuna noodle casserole to replace the additive-laden boxes of “Helper.” She offered the needed ingredients and one-page recipes to families in the program, and they all accepted. Feedback so far indicates that the recipes are so easy to follow that kids can help prepare the meal and spend time with their families. The scratch dinners also yield larger quantities than a box mix.
Lori works hard to ensure others receive more from the food pantry than she did in her earlier days – specifically, seasonings and fresh produce. Seasonings are essential for mimicking the flavor of those familiar box mixes Lori is replacing, and especially for children, “If the flavor isn’t what they’re used to, they’re not going to eat it.” Most seasonings can be obtained for $1, but make an immense difference in the taste of a meal and in turn, boost the confidence of those learning to cook from scratch. Fresh fruits and vegetables have obvious nutrient benefits, but Lori notices a boost in morale for families as well. Many families who use the food pantry lack the time and transportation to go to the grocery store often, and there are no full-service grocery stores within walking distance of Lincoln School. This makes families excited to enjoy the fresh produce as a special treat.
This fall has brought new challenges to the food pantry as a result of the pandemic. Illness and job loss have left many more families struggling. Lori says she has had families who never needed help in the past come to the food pantry this year. Due to deaths and financial hardship, Lori says more people are combining households, leading to more people under one roof sharing limited food. There are three ways the community can help, outlined below:
- Donate – financial contributions are always welcome, as well as the following items:
- 1 lb. bags of brown rice
- dry beans – navy and pinto
- tuna packed in water
- elbow macaroni
- medium egg noodles
- canned fruit in natural juice – mandarin oranges, peaches, and pears
- spices – garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, and parsley flakes
- Volunteer – The Tri State Food Bank has been spread thin during the pandemic, leaving Lori to shop for more items herself. This takes time and energy that she could otherwise spend at Lincoln, so she is hopeful to obtain a rotation of volunteers who can pick up items at the grocery store and deliver them to Lincoln School. Lori will provide a shopping list and payment for the groceries, all volunteers need is time and transportation.
- Be inspired, but don’t stop there. It’s easy to see the smiling faces and full bellies impacted by the EVSC Lincoln School food pantry as the inspiring resolution to an entrenched community problem; but the work of Lori and Urban Seeds is to question the systems that have created nutritional insecurity in the first place. What makes a tireless advocate like Lori tired? Lori puts it this way: “Food has been used as a reward and it can be used as a punishment. It is very uncomfortable to live in a place with no grocery stores while more convenience stores pop up all the time.” We all know the term “food desert” to describe a community that lacks access to adequate food resources; but consider the term “food apartheid.” The Lincoln neighborhood is not a desolate wasteland, as implied by a desert, but a thriving, active community full of families who share everyone’s desire to raise secure, nourished, happy children. The difference, then, is where the city wishes to invest. There is money to be spent in the Lincoln neighborhoods; if there was not, the convenience stores and dollar stores would not be thriving. Grocery stores, however, provide a greater social return by offering fresher, healthier options – options which Lori has proven at the food bank lead to improved mental health and academic performance. It’s true that a city bus can take anyone to an area with more options, but Lori is quick to point out the difficulty in hauling a week’s worth of groceries – and often small children – on public transportation during the limited hours the buses run. Cities all over the United States are finding creative ways to bring more nutrition to underserved areas. Evansville has had discussions on just this topic. But for those living with the problem, every day without change is another day of reduced nutrient security and the countless health and social struggles that accompany it.
The Lincoln School food pantry is an essential community resource, but the ultimate goal is to create a system in which it is less needed. While the wait for a grocery store continues, Lori has begun to grow her own food and is working on plans to start a garden at the school so they can go outside and pick what can’t be obtained at neighborhood stores. “I can do something, here in my area,” says Lori; we are all called to do the same.
To donate or volunteer to the EVSC Lincoln Food Pantry, email Lori at firstname.lastname@example.org