Janet Nieman’s neighborhood food pantry has gobbled up much of her Cheektowaga house. It has taken over the basement, a three-car attached garage and is threatening to creep up the basement stairs into her kitchen. For 25 years, Nieman operated the pantry in Cedar Grove Heights, an area where about 70 percent of the families live in poverty.
She calls her food pantry Evangelistic E’s, a testament to her second husband, Donald Ensmenger, an evangelistic minister who passed away three years ago. Today the independent pantry operated by Nieman and her third husband, the Rev. Roy Nieman, distributes 11,000 to 12,000 pounds of food each month to 350 to 400 families.
Janet Nieman, who is 68, grew up in northern New Jersey and has been active in the Baptist church her entire life. She held several jobs in local broadcast radio and for five years hosted a Christian program.
Married in January 2013, Nieman is hoping to next year move the food pantry to Cedar Grove Life Changing Church, within walking distance of the current location.
People Talk: Didn’t you start the pantry to serve pastors and their families?
Janet Nieman: Yes. We realized how difficult it is sometimes for a pastor to make ends meet on the salary, or lack of salary, he gets. I was helping out a pastor whose church paid his bills and he got what was left over. Some weeks it was $50 and some weeks it was $300. And he had three children. Initially we have 10 or 12 families that we helped. The first group of people we started helping were pastors and then we expanded to home-school households. We also found professional people were hurting.
PT: What kind of a kid were you?
JN: Studious. When I got a 100, I wondered why it wasn’t 101. And when I didn’t have homework, I would bring home a schoolbook and copy a page to keep my mind fresh. My dad worked in a factory. My mom eventually started to work as a legal assistant. They owned a boardinghouse. My goal was to be a doctor. It was a passion. My other extreme passion is music. I got to go for a full year at Roberts Wesleyan College for music.
PT: This marriage marks your second to a minister.
JN: I was pretrained. Being a pastor’s wife takes a certain commitment. We could be in the middle of a fancy dinner, and if the phone rings and there’s a problem he has to leave.
PT: Describe your wedding.
JM: We were married at Cleveland Drive Presbyterian Church. Weddings of minsters might have more reference to God putting us together because I firmly believe that’s what happened.
PT: Did you go on a honeymoon?
JN: Kind of. Roy lived in Ohio in a senior apartment and we went to the senior apartment. We had a week there and they gave us a party. When we came back to Buffalo I received the Legion of Honor Award for service to the community from the Veterans Administration.
PT: How poor is the neighborhood you serve?
JN: Seventy to 75 percent of the people who live in Cedar Grove Heights are very low income. Here they can get subsidized housing, and I think they find acceptance here as well. It’s a very close-knit neighborhood. I’ve seen people who are homeless able to sleep in someone’s living room. I like that they care about each other. One man we helped was vice president of a bank and he was selling his furniture – just to attempt to keep his house.
PT: Is the need for food cyclical?
JN: Yes. There was a time in 2006-2007 that we weren’t getting as many clients. But I receive less cash donations now than I did in 2006. And my numbers are doubled. I used to get a lot of little donations. That has all stopped.
PT: Has the cut in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits affected your food pantry?
JN: I think it scared people into thinking they will not have enough food. Food stamps are designed to be supplemental. The hard thing is that the price of food is going up and food stamp benefits were just cut.
PT: You meet personally with each client?
JN: Yes, and sometimes food is just the tip of the iceberg. Clients have a deeper need. Food breaks barriers down so that people think they’re going for food, but it can lead to more. We’ve done a wedding for two of our clients in Cazenovia Park.
PT: What do people forego so they can buy food?
JN: Some don’t pay their utilities. Many go without cars. They go without household items like decent towels, dishes pot, pans. They don’t spend money on nice pots and pans or sheets.
PT: What kinds of food do pantries need the most?
JN: When people are donating to pantries there are certain foods that every pantry always needs. Corn, boxed macaroni and cheese, pancake mix and syrup. People can have pancakes for breakfast and supper. Spaghetti sauce is in demand. I can remember way back when we first started there was battle for spaghetti sauce. I remember getting a case and having to decide which family would get the spaghetti sauce, That was tough.
PT: When was the last time you were on vacation?
JN: Never? When we go to Ohio, he’s tuning pianos or counseling people in his ministry. We kind of dream about that, to get away for two or three days. We don’t go out to the movies because we can’t afford it. I mean our combined income is horrendously low. We are poor but I am OK. I don’t need a lot.