'There is dignity in selecting your own groceries,' says pantry official

Deacon Bob Hornacek, left, leads volunteers at Paul's Pantry in Green Bay, Wis., in prayer Sept. 16, 2021, prior to opening the pantry to guests for the day. Deacon Hornacek, a member of St. Matthew Parish in Allouez, serves as assistant director at the food pantry, which was founded in 1984 by the late Leo Frigo. (CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (CNS) ─ For Deacon Bob Hornacek, "the beautiful things" he sees at Paul's Panty in Green Bay "is not just what we do, but the way we do it and why we do it."

Paul's Pantry, founded in 1984, operates as a free grocery store for people in need. It relies on support from the community and does not receive any government funds.

Deacon Hornacek, of St. Matthew Parish in Allouez, Wisconsin, has been the pantry's assistant director since 2019. He describes his job as "half administrative and half on the ground in the pantry every day."

The pantry, with its motto "Neighbors Feeding Neighbors," has remained open throughout the pandemic.

"With COVID, so many places went away (eliminating) any contact. At Paul's Pantry, we doubled down," the deacon told The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay. "We are going to stay open because we want to serve people and build relationships with them."

"We are going to do it as safely as possible, socially distance, extra sanitizing and cleaning, have gloves and masks," he said. "There is dignity in selecting your own groceries. I don't want to give you a box of food and have you throw half of it away because you don't like it. We are here to rescue food and save it from the dumpster, not fill dumpsters."

The pantry is "a grocery store," he explained.

"We will have 100 carts go through today and all will be different," Deacon Hornacek said. "We still have limits on some items. We want to give people as many options as we can because there is dignity in that. It means you matter. Your tastes matter. If you don't like canned peas, leave them for the person behind you."

Deacon Hornacek's journey to Paul's Pantry dates to 2011, when he worked in television news.

A longtime broadcast journalist and investigative reporter, he interviewed Craig Robbins, executive director at Paul's Pantry, for his show, "CW-14 Focus" that year.

"I did that show for eight years. I did more than 200 episodes. The very first show I ever recorded was with Craig," Deacon Hornacek said. "I remember thinking at the time when I recorded that interview, 'This is what I want to do. I want to highlight places like this because I believe not just in what they do, but how they do it. I want to bring attention to those types of places.'"

Four years ago, when Deacon Hornacek was ordained to the diaconate, his contract with WLUK-TV Channel 11 was coming to an end. He intended to move into full-time ministry.

"I had it all figured out. God just had to bless my plan," he said.

Potential ministry opportunities did not develop, and the television station wanted him to continue, so he signed a two-year contract.

"God is much more wise than I am," he said. "Just spending those two years as a broadcast journalist and an ordained deacon in the Catholic Church, through that combination, I was able to bring Christ. I was able to bring church into conversations, into places that I otherwise would not have been able to."

During his diaconate formation, Deacon Hornacek volunteered from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. on Saturdays at Paul's Pantry, where he said he "had some amazing God moments and challenging experiences."

When looking for his next opportunity to pursue when his last television contract ended, Deacon Hornacek discovered a posting at the pantry. He called Robbins, who provided an honest description of the work required.

"I got off the phone and said to myself, 'Good luck with that. There is no way I'm going to do that,'" said Deacon Hornacek, who grew up in the Milwaukee area.

But Paul's Pantry stuck with him. He felt he was meant to serve there, that God was leading him there and he should at least submit a resume.

He finally had what was his "worst interview ever," Deacon Hornacek with a laugh. "But, a couple days later, they offered me the job."

"Everything prepared me for the work I'm doing now," he said. "There is just something special about this place. It's in the people, it's in the history, it's in the heart of what it is here. We don't know who is walking in the door to volunteer or to get food. Sometimes that's hard for people."

"The breadth of support in this community" for the pantry, he said, "is incredible."

"But I've also found there are not many people who have been down here to see it, to smell it, touch it and experience it," Deacon Hornacek said. "I found that, once they do, you can't help but be moved by the Holy Spirit."

Whether that means, he added, that people are "moved to volunteer, make a financial donation or a food donation, or to save your egg cartons instead of throwing them in the garbage, at some level, being down here, it moves people to do something. They realize that (food insecurity) isn't a problem that's out there. It's right here."

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Kurowski is associate editor of The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.