By JEFF CLEMETSON | La Mesa Courier
Monica Muldoon has always set out to help people. She has been teaching special education classes at Highlands Elementary School in Spring Valley for over 20 years, and in that capacity she has also become a champion in the fight against food insecurity.
“I started by just giving snacks out, that kind of thing,” she said.
At first, when a student showed signs of hunger, she would bring food from her own pantry to help. Over time, as the need grew, she would make bags of food to send home with her students. As the need grew still, she started asking her friends and colleagues who would get together at a regular wine and book club for donations of food or money to help out. And when the need was so great, she began enlisting more permanent help and found a partner in Mo Gildersleeve.
“When we connected about two years ago, she was explaining what she did and I said ‘Oh my gosh, this is amazing, I want in, but we need to do more. We can do so much more,” Gildersleeve said.
Together, the two women formed the nonprofit entity called Monie & Mo’s Food Pantry, which distributes food bags to needy families at six schools in the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District. Once a month, Monie & Mo’s distributes bags of donated food collected from friends and community members. The pair also collects cash donations that are spent at the food bank where it is most cost effective. Once all the food is collected, there’s a packing party where people come over and prepare the bags of food to distribute.
“We make an assembly line and we do 30 bags at a time,” Gildersleeve said.
The volunteers then take the bags to Highlands for the students’ families to pick up there. Social workers from the other schools pick up food bags from Muldoon’s garage to bring to their respective schools.
“They go and have a giving table set up along a circular driveway for easy and safe pickup,” Muldoon said.
In addition to picking up food bags for distribution, the schools’ social workers play a key role in gathering information about each family’s needs. Dealing with some generous donations for this year’s Thanksgiving illustrate the importance of school social workers in Monie & Mo’s model.
“We partnered with Valley Farms and they gave us 15 turkeys for Thanksgiving. There was not enough for all the families at Highlands, but then we were gifted gift cards from Luna Grill so we were able to give gift cards to the other families,” Muldoon said.
Deciding which families got turkeys and which got gift cards was a matter of knowing which families had ovens at home and which were homeless.
“So that’s where the counselor comes in, because they know these families,” Muldoon continued. “We asked her if we should try and get 15 more turkeys and she said ‘No, I know the families that have the resources to cook a turkey and I know the families that could use a gift card.’ So it’s really important to have that connection with the counselors at the schools.”
In addition to school counselors and partnerships with local businesses like Valley Farms and Breaking Bread, which donates bread and money to the food pantry, Monie & Mo’s has also been fortunate to have help from other local groups like Feeding the Flock Ministry and people like Kristen Timmons, who runs a food pantry on 54th Street and Muldoon’s daughter Morgan Davis who helped with setting up the nonprofit, building the website monieandmos.com and with networking. The help is needed and appreciated because of the exponential growth Monie & Mo’s has seen since the COVID pandemic began.
Before the pandemic, food distributions were only scheduled for the beginning of school breaks to tie over families that suddenly lose the two meals a day their children get at school.
“A lot of these families really rely on the school for breakfast and lunch every day,” Gildersleeve said. “If you think about it, per kid that’s 10 meals per week and we’re leaving them out for two weeks times however many kids are in their family.”
By March of this year, even before the COVID crisis fully took hold, Monie & Mo’s made the switch to monthly distributions because the need was already growing. With the pandemic, the need for food exploded.
“Last year at this time we ware excited to serve 16 bags of food,” Gildersleeve said. “And this last time we served 120 families, so that’s how quickly we grew.”
In March, Monie & Mo’s served two schools. In April, two more joined the pantry program. In October, four more joined. Currently, Monie & Mo’s serves Highlands, Bancroft, Avondale, La Mesa Dale, Rolando and Northmont elementary schools.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if by next year we have all 15 schools in La Mesa-Spring Valley School District,” Muldoon said.
That kind of growth has brought some changes to how the pantry operates, like insisting that all donated food be non-perishable.
“In the beginning we said we’d take everything, we’ll never decline anything — this was part of our thing,” Gildersleeve said. “Then I had three hundred pounds of rotten potatoes in my garage because there was a heat wave that shortened their lifespan by about four days, which crushed us.”
One thing that hasn’t changed for Monie & Mo’s is a commitment to the entire community, not just the school community.
“Part of our mission is that it doesn’t have to only be the schools that we’re giving to, if we hear of somebody that is in need that we can help, we’re going to start helping,” Muldoon said.
Still, the focus of the food panty will be mostly on schools and Gildersleeve sees a future where they partner with more school districts to help seed their own self-sufficient food pantry programs, as well as start looking for grant money to give a boost to donations beyond local businesses and residents.
“We are also trying to have every school have a little Mini & Mo’s pantry at every school, where if a family comes in to them and says, ‘Oh my gosh, my husband just lost his job, we don’t have any food. Can you help?’ they would be able to get stuff to them immediately,” Muldoon said.
Right now, Monie & Mo’s Food Pantry is flush with donations because people are “feeling deep pockets and they want to share the holiday spirit,” Gildersleeve said. But what about after the holidays or after the COVID vaccine is distributed and the pandemic begins to fade from donors’ consciousness?
“We have faith. We always get what we need,” Muldoon said.
“Somehow,” finished Gildersleeve. “Our motto is ‘We haven’t failed yet, so just keep on truckin’. So we’ll just keep going and keep the faith.”
For more information about Monie & Mo’s Food Pantry, or to make a donation, visit www.monieandmos.com.
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.