By Cathleen Draper, originally published in UBNow
UB School of Social Work student Matthew Schwartz is turning the
tables on traditional food pantries, providing food directly to the
hungry out of the trunk of his car.
Schwartz, 31, works as a case manager for Jewish Family Service
of Buffalo and Erie County, and he noticed that many of his clients
were struggling to access food pantries. He is a part-time student
in his second year with an anticipated summer 2018 graduation.
“I was working with some child survivors of the Holocaust
and also my general community, and I saw one of the food pantry
things,” Schwartz says, referring to a list of requirements
for those wishing to access a food pantry. “I looked at it
and I thought ‘this is so ridiculous the amount of
information they’re requesting.’”
Food pantries can require a variety of information from those in
need, among them identification in the form of a driver’s
license or ID card, documentation of financial need and a local
address. Transportation issues and limited food pantry hours also
present obstacles to the hungry.
“The system is not built to be conducive to the reality of
people who require food bank assistance,” Schwartz says.
He teamed up with the Jewish community, the United Church of
Christ and other case managers locally to found Food Gnomes, a
mobile food pantry that launched November 2015.
Schwartz graduated from UB in 2008 with a bachelor’s in
applied linguistics. He relocated to Israel, serving in the Israel
Defense Forces for 37 months. Upon his return to his hometown on
Long Island, he completed his MBA at the University of Phoenix.
A “Buffalonian at heart,” Schwartz moved back to
Western New York and later enrolled in UB’s MSW program.
Social work appeals to him, he says, because it unites his
expertise under one goal.
“It takes all of the skills I have and uses them as a tool
kit,” Schwartz says. “It’s a way where I get to
feel like I’ve made a difference.”
He does make a difference — daily — serving clients
and the hungry on the streets through Food Gnomes.
Food Gnomes does not accept financial donations. Rather, the
mobile food pantry is fueled by food drives and public donations of
Schwartz doesn’t keep statistics on how many people are
fed, eliminating a time-consuming bookkeeping process.
“We’d rather spend the time getting food to
people,” he says.
Volunteer drivers — or gnomes — are case managers
for local social service agencies. Vibrant green magnets identify
cars as mobile food pantries, and gnomes dedicate one-third of
their trunk space to non-perishable boxed and canned items. They
refill once a week — or as needed — at two local
Gnomes are also equipped with brochures and pamphlets outlining
housing options, domestic violence resources, career training and
“Volunteers are working with clients already who generally
need the food, and they know how to make those referrals if someone
stops them on the street,” Schwartz says. “So,
it’s not just food. It’s ‘hey, here’s some
food, but are things going OK? Is there anything else we can help
Schwartz hopes to help more than just the needy in Buffalo; he
envisions the organization assisting members of the UB community as
He notes that SUNY Buffalo State provides a food pantry for its
students. UB maintains a relationship with the University
Presbyterian Church’s Food Pantry across from the South
Campus where students in need can obtain food.
Schwartz envisions starting Food Gnome Fridays at UB, similar to
Food Truck Tuesdays at Larkin Square in Buffalo – but
He feels Food Gnomes can start a conversation about hunger at
UB. “Anything that gets people talking about social
situations and social awareness and class consciousness is a very
good thing,” Schwartz says. “UB students are the best
and brightest in the world, period. I think UB has a lot to offer
Schwartz offers a lot to the community as well through his work
as a case manager and with Food Gnomes.
“We really believe in having an impact by answering the
needs as the community states them, not what we think they
are,” Schwartz says.
“We only have one question: Are you hungry? If the answer
is yes, then we feed you.”