SMITHFIELD – Smithfield residents Rachel Fontenault and her daughter Kerith spend three afternoons each week volunteering at Project Hand Up, helping to provide affordable food to anyone who comes by.
For their tireless efforts, Project Hand Up is honoring them as “Local Legends.”
Located at 15 Factory St. West in Warwick, Project Hand Up is a nonprofit organization and an independent food supplemental program. There are no requirements to shop, and everyone is welcome. The times and days for pick-up go by last names.
Fontenault said the organization is different from what most people think because it is a food rescue. Stores such as Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Amazon, and Ocean State Job Lot will have food that is close to its expiration date and can’t be sold.
“A lot of those companies now have policies to reduce food waste to donate it to nonprofits to be redistributed,” she said. “At Project Hand Up, we go through the food, we sort out what is usable and what’s not, and then the food is sold affordably to anyone who wants to come.”
Anyone is welcome to come, and the primary goal of Project Hand Up is to provide food to families, community members, and senior citizens affordably so that the food is accessible. There is a $6 donation fee, which goes toward the program, such as for rent and refrigeration, and so the program can continue to run.
Anyone who comes pays $6, and they get a wagon of food, which is whatever they’re handing out that week. Typically there are three bags, one with dry goods, one bag of fresh produce, and one bag mixed with dairy, meat, and bread, plus some extras.
Each family receives an average of $200 to $300 worth of food for the $6 donation fee. Fontenault said each week is different for what kind of food they will have because offerings are based on the donations that come in.
“Most people are really appreciative and a lot of people come and they will deliver it to other families, families that they know are in need but might not be willing to accept assistance but really could use some help,” Fontenault said. “Or people will come and deliver food to someone who is quarantined with COVID, so it’s pretty cool.”
Fontenault said that they also have a lot of senior citizens who come. Everyone else must come on a day based on their last name. People can get up to two loads of groceries in their car, they just need an ID for both families.
The mother and daughter began volunteering last year when they saw on Facebook that the organization had received a USDA grant and was distributing flats of fruit for $3.
“So we went and all the volunteers were there loading up the stuff into everyone’s car,” Fontenault said. “So I saw them lugging these big things up and down the ramps and a lot of the volunteers were older and it was hot, it was the middle of summer, so we decided that we could do that and we just started.”
Kerith said she is usually loading the wagons and pulling them up and down the ramp while her mom takes on the role of stopping the people when they come in, checking their IDs, and having them open their trunk.
Despite having a busy schedule, Kerith said she hopes to continue volunteering.
“I enjoy it. Everyone there is really nice,” she said.
“I think it’s pretty cool. I’m not a big fan of waste, so I love that we are making sure to divert this usable food back into homes and into people’s stomachs, essentially,” Fontenault said. “The people we work with are fabulous, everyone just really wants to help other people.”
Prior to COVID, the organization would have shoppers come into the building and the visitors would then pick out items from each section. When COVID hit, Fontenault said they quickly switched things around and made it a drive-through program with pre-bagged groceries.
At the height of COVID, the organization was serving close to 1,000 families each week. There are currently fewer people coming than there were at the start of the pandemic, but Project Hand Up is serving more individuals than they were prior to the pandemic.