Photograph by Steven Higgs

Brooke Gentile oversees Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard, a food pantry whose shelves are stocked with goods donated by or rescued from local restaurants and grocery stores.

A mammoth delivery truck pulls up in front of Mother Hubbard's Cupboard, and two women hop down from either side of the cab.

They jog around to the side and rear freight doors, which they open to reveal dozens of boxes of fresh cut green beans, instant mashed potatoes, canned grapefruit juice and nonfat powdered milk thrown together in a four-foot-high jumble.

"Did a little bit of crazy driving on the way here!" Brooke Gentile observes cheerfully, eyeing the cattywampus cargo.

Gentile oversees operations at Mother Hubbard's, a community food pantry south of downtown Bloomington on Walnut Street. She seems born for this job.

She has the ability to walk the line between serving and patronizing those who come seeking, or offering, help. Over the next three hours, she'll be responsible for nine volunteers, two staff members, 113 "patrons" (citizens who, for whatever reason, are having hard times affording enough food for their families this week), two dozen or so excitable children and one reporter.

She never shows the first hint of exasperation, anxiety or condescension - not when two toddler sisters bicker loudly over a toy, not when a woman violates the honor system and fibs about the number of people in her household (for the second time), not when the reporter lingers too close to the patrons whom she'd promised to allow to shop in peace.

It's 3:15 p.m. By 4, dozens of people will be waiting outside for their chance to "shop."


No one expresses any doubt that the pantry's half-empty shelves will be ready in time. No one gives orders.

Seven pairs of hands swarm around the truck, grabbing packages of lettuce, mushrooms, asparagus and cauliflower; boxes of milk cartons (regular and chocolate); and flat after flat of muffins, rolls, donuts and bagels - items that have been donated by or rescued from grocery stores and restaurants around town and sent to Mother Hubbard's via the Hoosier Hills Food Bank.

Volunteers whisk the bounty inside in a dance so fluid it could have been choreographed. Shelves empty when they arrived are piled high with iced cinnamon bread, Danishes, donut boxes, individual slices of made-from-scratch carrot cake and even whole, decorated cakes. The shelves directly behind them are overflowing with loaves of bread, everything from run-of-the-mill white slices to long, sinuous baguettes.

Refrigerators emit an electric hum that fills the 1,600-square-foot room.

Gentile and her deputy, Stephanie Solomon, mull over what to do with a box of single-serving sour cream packets. They decide to cut the flaps off the box and place it in one of the refrigerators, beside the rows of plum honey lavender yogurt and soy pudding, packages of organic hot dogs, a cup of bright orange carrot juice and two tubs of "vegetable emerald soup."


It's 3:40. The delivery truck has left. The 15-space parking lot is full. Patrons are waiting in their cars. They know they can't line up at the door for another 10 minutes.

A bucket of bleeding tomatoes and squishy bananas blocks the aisle where volunteers cull produce. Their efforts notwithstanding, the area bears little resemblance to the blemish-free displays of for-profit grocery stores. The spinach is wilted and bruised, the asparagus is limp and jaundiced, and the bananas, though still appealing, are clearly "of a certain age."

But the Roma tomatoes are a healthy red, the cauliflower spotless, and the leeks and green onions are, well, green.


At the end of the row, a volunteer named Nancy picks crushed kiwifruit from a box. Three years ago, she drove an elderly friend here to shop. She's been coming back ever since.

"You know how to keep from going crazy?" Nancy asks, in softly accented English. "Help someone else."

She's quoting her mother, a German Christian who got tossed in a Nazi concentration camp for helping Jews during the Holocaust.

"I miss her," she says, leaning on the box and mushing the last kiwifruit under the cardboard flap. "She would help here, too. Especially since it's food. So many people hungry."


Nearby, two little boys stack boxes of four-cheese mashed potatoes on a bottom shelf. The boys are 3 and 6, and their fiery copper hair is an arresting sight.

They work with surprising tidiness, but catastrophe strikes when they stack a second layer of boxes upright atop the first.

The boys watch in dismay as their work topples to the floor. Their mother, Shelley, kneels to show them how to lay the top boxes flat so that the stack steadies itself.

Shelley, whose hair is not the color one might expect, found the pantry three-and-a-half years ago.

"He's been coming here since he was in utero," she says, pointing to her youngest. "I needed to eat. We love it here. It's like a family, in a sense."


At 10 to 4, Gentile drags six poles and a rope outside and organizes the 25 or so waiting patrons into an orderly line. It's Thursday, the day when pregnant women and nursing mothers get to go to the front of the line.

There's no pause, no deep breath, nothing to mark the impending transition from stocking to shopping. The activities blend together seamlessly as volunteers peel away from their work and head toward the front desk, where they sign in as patrons.

Gentile says Mother Hubbard's depends on about 75 active volunteers, about 80 percent of whom in turn depend on the pantry to help them feed their families.

They grab one plastic grocery bag for each person in their households and begin a clockwise tour around the room, selecting from the items they finished stocking just moments ago: popcorn and potatoes, spinach and tomatoes, orange juice and slices of pizza.

And, of course, a few donuts.

Charli Wyatt can be reached at