Food assistance community soldiers on after Roshelle Pate's death

Following the passing of Pate, known in Columbus as ‘The Food Soldier,’ those who worked with her speak out about her legacy of giving and the importance of carrying her mission forward.
The Food Soldier canteen on East Main Street in Columbus.
The Food Soldier canteen on East Main Street in Columbus.Andy Downing

Every Sunday for three years, Ron Hollingshead has made the 40-minute drive from Mechanicsburg, Ohio, to the Near East Side of Columbus, where he serves as a volunteer at the food canteen and resource center founded by Roshelle Pate, also known as “The Food Soldier,” who died unexpectedly on Nov. 13 at age 58. 

In early December, shortly before giving instructions to a half-dozen new volunteers – recruited for the afternoon from a recreational men’s rugby team – Hollingshead recalled his first brush with Pate and how readily she embraced him.

“She didn’t care where you came from or how broken you were, because I was a broken person when I started volunteering,” he said. “And she was like, ‘Here’s an extra box. Give it to one of your neighbors.’ And that started it. You didn’t want to say no to her because she was so inviting, and she led by an easy hand. It wasn’t, ‘Go do that!’ It was, ‘Come help me.’”

In a series of interviews, the people involved in the daily work of feeding community members in need repeatedly described Pate as connective tissue, of sorts, recalling how she helped to fill the gaps that existed within the food distribution model and opened up resources to people and communities that had traditionally been overlooked. 

Emily Rials and Susan Swinford of Food Rescue Columbus started working with Pate in 2020 when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, which distributed boxes of fresh produce, dairy, cooked meats and seafood to Americans across the country early in the pandemic.

“And because of the nature of that USDA program, a lot of those conventional, established food pantries were already getting a huge amount of food,” said Swinford, who described Food Rescue's primary aim as keeping food from landfills and directing it to those in need. “And that’s when we were like, okay, who’s not able to get this food? Who isn’t able to sit in a car line? Who might not have access to a car? Who might be afraid that there are cops at these giveaways, helping to direct traffic?

“And that was a piece where Roshelle was able to step in. … And from 2020 to now, we’ve tripled the number of spots we take food to. And most of that expansion has been supportive housing complexes. One woman had a blessing box in her front yard, and we would take boxes to her. And then her kids would load them into a wheelbarrow and take them up and down the street, dropping off boxes on neighbors’ steps, because what Roshelle had cultivated was a real, physical, tangible community of people who cared about making sure everybody has food.”

Rebecca Peacock-Creagh, market manager at Mid-Ohio Food Collective and a friend of Pate’s going back nearly eight years, reiterated this idea, stressing that Pate’s legacy wasn’t connected to the creation of The Food Soldier but rather the reality that she had inspired and shaped myriad food soldiers – a vast, growing network of impassioned volunteers, many of whom spoke of the need to carry on the work started by Pate.

This energy was palpable in the hours before The Food Soldier canteen finished preparations for its weekly free grocery this past Sunday, with 20-odd volunteers making final checks on the rows of tables and shelves that stretched toward the rear of the building, all of which were packed with mounds of bagged and prepackaged salads, assorted fresh fruits and vegetables, gallons of milk, six-packs of yogurt and much, much more. In addition, a collection of toys and board games lined a built-in desk toward the front of the space – a selection of donated gifts for children as we barrel into the holiday season.

Around 1:30 p.m., Hollinshead passed out orange safety vests to the rugby players tasked with helping load groceries into cars, the vests accompanied with gentle instruction one could imagine formerly having emanated from Pate. “Make sure you show them some love,” Hollingshead said, stressing the importance of a smile and a gentle word when interacting with community members who in the course of a normal day can be met with indifference – or worse. “You have a chance to be that first, positive influence.”

Outside, the gathered community members, some of whom had been waiting for hours outside of The Food Soldier Canteen & Resource Center, located at 1336 E. Main St., traded stories about Pate’s giving nature and her penchant for making them feel seen but never judged. Jamara Williams, who first met Pate a little over a year ago, recalled how Pate brought her into one of the back offices of the canteen after her dog died, where for more than an hour the two cried and talked together.

“It’s kind of funny now, because I was like, ‘My child died!’ And [Pate] was freaking out, like, ‘Your child died!’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, Princess, my dog,’” Williams said, and laughed. “But she just welcomes you with open arms no matter who you are, how you speak, what you look like.”

Across the board, those interviewed said Pate approached food access work with a similarly open spirit, believing resources should be offered to the community absent barriers. The weekly Food Soldier canteen, for instance, has always been open to anyone who visits the space, its goods and services given without the zip code restrictions and income qualifications that exist at most other pantries. 

“Roshelle started with the conviction that everyone needs to eat, and everyone should have access to food,” Rials said. “And everything she did was intended to expand on that world. It was never a ‘we need to privilege this’ or a ‘we need to limit that.’ It was, ‘How do we get more people involved?’”

“If you’re here, that means you need it. And if you need it and we have it, you’re going to get it,” said Linda Johnson, who along with Staci Gaulden has taken on a leadership role at The Food Soldier in the wake of Pate’s death, with the canteen feeding an average of 80 to 100 families on a typical Sunday. “That was just her way, her gift. Seeing her helped me be a little more compassionate, a little more empathetic to people, and a bit more understanding that it’s not a person, it’s a situation, and it’s one any of us could find ourselves in at any time.”

Everyone interviewed said it was difficult to quantify the scope of the hole that exists with Pate’s passing, with many repeating some version of the phrase, “There’s not one person who can replace Roshelle.”

In the hour before the canteen opened on Sunday, a gentleman arrived and said he had a trove of good-quality clothing he no longer needed, but when he asked the best place to donate it, the question left the assembled crowd stumped. “See, this is when you need Roshelle, because she would say, ‘Take it here,’” one volunteer said. 

The Food Soldier Facebook group is reflective of this concept, offering information and resources stretching from food security to rental assistance and legal services. “She was the resource queen,” Jamara Williams said.

Those interviewed said Pate’s tireless advocacy could be traced back to any number of sources.

Food Rescue’s Swinford and Rials pointed to Pate’s years of military service, recalling a time when she was on duty in Texas in the aftermath of a hurricane, and the deep impact the devastation left on Pate as she and her fellow service members worked to recover bodies and source shelter for those whose homes had been destroyed. Pastor Cory Pariseau of Crossroads World Outreach Ministries, who first met Pate three or four years ago, said he believed her sense of calling had its roots in her mom’s health issues, sharing how Pate’s desire to have the elder incorporate more fruits and vegetables into her diet led her to want to bring healthy food to others in the community who needed it.

“She had a big heart and cared about every human, and people not having food was something she couldn’t stomach,” said Pate’s friend Steve Landes, founder of Couchphilanthropy, a Columbus-based nonprofit that connects “humans having dollars with humans needing dollars.” “But as for her motivations, man, I don’t know.”

The unknowable nature of what drove Pate to this kind of work can be attributed at least in part to her relentless focus on others. Swinford, for one, said that in those rare times that Pate opened up and began to talk about herself, she would quickly course correct, asking what was going on in your life and how things were going for you.

“In that kind of selfless way, every person who ever met Roshelle, and every person who shops here [at the canteen], they all felt like they were Roshelle’s best friend, because that’s how she treated you,” Landes said. “And when you actually care about folks the way she did, and you absorb their traumas and troubles and joys … it can be a lot to take in. And, yeah, she would never complain about her stuff, but she had bills to pay and people to care for and things to handle in her own life, like we all do, but you often wouldn’t know it.”

Many of those interviewed shared similar stories of Pate’s indefatigable nature, her relentless work ethic, and her deep belief that anything was possible if you just put your shoulder into the work and kept moving forward. Rials recalled one sweltering July in 2020 when via Farmers to Families Pate received a massive delivery of milk, which consisted of a semi-truck loaded with 40-pound crates of milk, which were then packed into a dozen 48-crate pallets. “We didn’t have a forklift, and it was the height of the pandemic, so people were already tired, and it was absurd in every way,” Rials said. “But Roshelle was saying, ‘We’re going to make it happen, and we’re going to get it off the truck, and we’re going to figure things out.”

Landes said there are countless similar stories that could be told about Pate, nothing that there were more than 15 times when he personally watched her take possession of a truck loaded with “40 3,000-pound skids of food,” and then work until it had all disappeared into the hands of people in need. “And I was only at a fraction of the things she did, and she was working all of the time,” he said.

“Roshelle was able to orchestrate, direct this sort of complicated chaos, this ballet of volunteers and people,” Swinford said. “And when you first meet someone, it’s hard to see how much work that is. And she made it look so easy, and she was so happy to do it. It never appeared like she didn’t have time for everyone, even though she didn’t have time for anything. And the more you worked with her, the more you realized how many levels her brain was working on, and how many things she was keeping in her mind, and how little sleep she had. … So, she worked pretty hard not to show the strains, but there was some cost underneath it all.”

While no cause of death has been released, several of those interviewed drew a connection between the relentless physical and mental strain of Pate’s work and her passing. Several people shared how Pate would take calls about food donations any time day or night, and if there was an opportunity to take hold of resources that she could later move to those who were in need, she was going to say yes, no matter how daunting the task.

“And, to me, that was one of the things that led to her getting so tired that she finally took this rest,” Landes said. “She was doing this work for a long time, and it weighs on you. It’s sad, man, but I’ve said this to a lot of folks: She was never going to slow down. And this, her passing, was the only way she was ever going to rest.”

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