When the Salvation Army closed a food pantry operating out of its facility on Darbo Drive in the fall of 2018, Raphael Ragland knew something had to be done.
Working to ensure that pockets of hunger don’t go unaddressed in the community is central to his mindset. Ragland and his business partner, Maurice Banks, put that to use over the Thanksgiving holiday when they helped make sure that no one in the east side neighborhood went without food.
“We take pride in having a relationship with every family in the neighborhood and we want them to look at us as someone they can call family,” Ragland told The Cap Times. “What we did over Thanksgiving is we went around the neighborhood door-to-door. So we sat there for like ten minutes in each home and let them know how things were going and that we’re having care packages this week. So we’re gearing up to put out all the care packages.”
The initiative is part of the Darbo Pantry Project, a project Ragland sees as necessary in an area where people can struggle to get their groceries to last from paycheck to paycheck.
The care packages are made up of things like canned foods and personal care items. During warm weather months they usually have bags full of fresh produce and vegetables that families can receive.
“When we first decided to do it, we went door-to-door in the neighborhood to ask people if they’d be interested in fresh, healthy food,” Ragland said. “We had about 40-50 families interested.”
The families served amount to approximately 125 people and are living in Community Development Authority housing around Worthington Park and the East Pointe Apartment complex on Darbo Drive.
The Darbo Pantry Project collects surplus food on a regular basis from entities like the Monona Terrace, Epic Systems and American Family Insurance, who have partnered with the Pantry Project in order to reduce food going to waste and helping families in need.
Ragland and Banks were just teenagers when they started getting involved with things like urban farming and helping provide healthy food for neighbors in need. Ragland moved to the Worthington Park area from Chicago when he was eleven years old. Banks came to Madison from Gary, Indiana, when he was seven.
Both men became involved with the neighborhood program Mentoring Positives run by Will Green. They came of age during a time when Green was beginning to partner with community activist Joe Mingle to help young people learn about agriculture and growing/producing food products as both a life skill and a job.
It was Ragland who came up with the name Off The Block Salsa for homemade salsa that kids involved in Mentoring Positives produce. The product has generated a lot of publicity and plans are to feature it at the future Madison Public Market.
That Ragland and Banks are so heavily involved in the community still as young adults was no surprise to Will Green.
“When I first got to Darbo in 2004, they were some of the first kids I ran into,” Green told The Cap Times. “They were probably ten, eleven years old. It’s great just seeing them still in the Darbo Community and expressing themselves and all the things we talk about at Mentoring Positives. People see the basketball and the salsa, but they don’t see the conversations we have about not having a father, getting locked up, going through struggles growing up.”
Green says that Banks and Ragland strongly represent what Mentoring Positives stands for but also represent what it means to be part of the community in Darbo-Worthington.
“It’s just an honor to see it. It falls around the whole schme of things we talked about back in the day, that Darbo can be something for everyone. They were involved in the beginning when we first started with the salsa. They were little dudes when I first brought the project to the table! We kind of all jumpstarted that and I’ve been able to persist through the whole effort. They’re young adults now. They are learning what they are and what they want to be but they have a sense of what we need to be in the community. It’s an honor for me to see that, especially fifteen years into the game.”
So it’s not surprising that they acted when they heard the Salvation Army pantry was closed.
“People were getting upset and didn’t have the means to get the canned food and stuff,” Ragland said. “We got a hold of Joe (Mingle) and we knew he had access to food and we could have care packages, canned foods, etc. I talked to a lot of people when Salvation Army closed the pantry and they were like ‘Might as well close the whole building down if they can’t use it.’ They’re pretty mad because they feel like the Salvation Army isn’ t there for them. We feel their pain and that’s why we’re out there doing the best we can for the neighborhood.”
A staffer at the Salvation Army confirmed that the food pantry was closed in October, 2019, but officials didn't reply to messages seeking further details.
Right now the two are working on creating an app that will work like other food delivery apps. People will be able to use it to see what foods are available and order delivery service to their front door.
“The future of this is we’re actually going to call it Feeding Darbo’s Future,” Ragland said. “That’s the name it will eventually branch off to. Then we are going to branch off into different neighborhoods and get an app where we let people know what items we have to give and they press in what they need and we deliver it to their door. Or if someone’s power goes out or something and their food goes bad, we can go over and deliver so they don’t have to be hungry for the night. So we’re trying to make it a pretty big deal.”
Ragland said the app is deep in development and could potentially be ready by the end of the year.
“After Christmas, we’re trying to have a launch party with all our donors to say thank you and have people come out and meet the families,” he said. “Basically, we are just trying to kick it off and we know that this is a common need in every neighborhood and we’re trying to make this thing known. That’s the main focus right now.”