"What are you making?" Dishing it up at Heavenly Groceries


Just like Heavenly Groceries itself, there's a lot to this website, and it's not always the easiest to navigate. We've tried our best to organize the content in a way that makes sense so do use the contents below as a guide!

  1. A brief history of Heavenly Groceries
  2. Heavenly Groceries is more than just a food bank
  3. What’s so "heavenly" about Heavenly Groceries?
  4. How does it work?
  5. Why numbers?
  6. What’s food got to do with it?
  7. Meet the patrons of heavenly groceries
  8. This is what we heard
  9. Berthe
  10. Majayah
  11. What does it mean to be a guardian?
  12. Mama Kat
  13. Ms Lil
  14. How do we fit in?
  15. A Note from Connie
  16. What Happens to the Food?
  17. Heavenly Groceries: The Broader Impact
  18. Acknowledgements

"One thing that I will share from you from Heavenly Groceries, is that it is a home away from Home." -Reverend Farrington

"We are called on at Heavenly Groceries specifically to be on a different time plane." -Della Pollock


A Brief History of Heavenly Groceries

According to the Heavenly Groceries official website, Heavenly Groceries/Comida Celestial is a certified food bank and ministry of St. Joseph CME Church, dedicated to providing quality produce and grocery items to the under-served communities in and surrounding Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Heavenly Groceries was founded in 2002 by Reverend Troy Harrison and his wife Bernice Harrison who collected bread in Durham and distributed it to members of the congregation. 15 years later, Heavenly Groceries serves over 3500 people from at least 5 different counties.


But Heavenly Groceries is more than just a food bank...

Heavenly Groceries is a piece of the wider world of food - finding, providing, cooking, eating.

And that's what we seek to demonstrate through this project. We aimed to understand what the patrons, and the guardians, of Heavenly Groceries would want you all to know about it. We sought to condition the space to be open enough for people to share their stories with us, and they did. Hopefully the following content will allow you to understand what's so special about Heavenly Groceries and why we so enjoy spending time there. The goal is that in scrolling through this page you get a sense of the dynamism and energy, the characters, the laughter, the loss, the sanctity and, most importantly, the food that is integral to Heavenly Groceries. That is, we hope you will have some idea of what it feels like to be at Heavenly Groceries.


What's so "Heavenly" about Heavenly Groceries?

"I feel so loved each and every time I walk into the doors of St. Joseph’s. It is apparent that the warmth and faith that is fostered in the sanctuary upstairs has trickled down into the basement of the church for each Heavenly Groceries session." -Jess, a UNC Student
Pinned to the doorway to the kitchen in Heavenly Groceries

Heavenly Groceries was founded by a reverend and is located in the basement of a Church, but the importance of faith at Heavenly Groceries goes beyond that. At Heavenly Groceries food is spiritually, as well as nutritiously, important. Food is more than just sustenance, but is a symbol too. Pleasure is taken in food, even when presence at Heavenly Groceries comes from a place of need. Before patrons enter Heavenly Groceries each day, one of the guardians leads a prayer to bless the food they will be sharing. Above is an example of Mama Kat (Katherine Council) leading the prayer from November 2017.


How does it work?

“Heavenly Groceries operates on a lottery system, so places in line are randomly assigned. Once you sign in, you’re given a number. Sign-ins are completely anonymous, and we only collect basic information to report back to the food bank”
Ms. Charley calls the numbers every day except Monday.
The numbers are especially made for Heavenly Groceries, so if one is lost, the number has to be retired from both sets.

Listen to the audio of Ms. Charley calling the numbers - "nobody does it like I do"


Why Numbers?

Heavenly Groceries previously operated on a first come, first serve basis. But nearly 10 years ago in 2009, the gathering to get in line started earlier and earlier as the perception that those who arrived earliest got best pick of the food began to spread. The gathering to get in line started early and prompted charges of loitering, and even criminality. Moving to a lottery system eliminated the spectacle associated with a large group of hungry folk waiting for food. In turn, the perpetuation of "otherness" was reduced and Heavenly Groceries continued to be able to provide its patrons dignity.

Ms. Charley Norwood is one of the brains behind the randomization system and is the person responsible for calling the numbers because, in her own words, "nobody does it like I do."


What's Food Got to Do With It?

In the case of Heavenly Groceries it seems that food has everything to do with it. It's obvious that food is central to Heavenly Groceries because it's a food bank where people come to to receive the food they need. Food is essential for survival. But beyond nutrition, food is finding, choosing, providing, cooking and eating. Heavenly Groceries is not just on a shelf, the food is used -- it's a part of home, of culture, of life. At Heavenly Groceries, it is obvious how much care people take to choose the food that they will enjoy, and that those they are cooking for will enjoy. People cook for occasions, for each other, because they enjoy it. At Heavenly Groceries, there is an overwhelming feeling that the food is feeding soul and body.

"Food is God"

A regular patron at Heavenly Groceries brings some of the guardians notes about spirituality, the universe, and -- as seen above -- food. The text of the note shown in the thumbnail is composed by the patron heard in the audio discussing food.

The food at Heavenly Groceries is sourced from 3 different grocery stores as well as from other food banks in North Carolina and personal donations from community members. The food is often plentiful, and it changes every day. There is variety, and just like the rest of Heavenly Groceries, the selection is dynamic. Heavenly Groceries set up like a grocery store where patrons can choose what food they want, and have the chance to shop.

A selection of food from one day at Heavenly Groceries

The food at Heavenly Groceries is as abundant as the love, more so than some of the patrons have ever witnessed...

"One moment that has struck me the most, is when a lady from Guam came back in the place towards the end of my shift and took a picture of the food leftover on the tables. She told me that this was not something she saw in Guam and teared up a bit. She said it was unheard of for people to just give out free food... Food has always been something I have taken for granted. I have never had to worry about not having it and I never asked where it came from, I just expected it to always be there. My status as a volunteer is still there, but it no longer feels so separating." - Tatiana, a UNC Student

Ronnie told us one day that everybody basically eats the same thing, and that all good food starts with the 'trinity': onions, garlic, and celery. He might be right, but from conversations with patrons at Heavenly Groceries, we know there is a lot of variety in what people cook with the same ingredients. Some of the patrons at Heavenly Groceries were kind enough to take home disposable cameras and take a few photos of the food they were cooking and eating. A few of the results are below.

Photos of food taken by patrons of Heavenly Groceries


Meet the patrons of Heavenly Groceries

Heavenly Groceries serves over 3500 people from 5 different counties in North Carolina, so it's clear that the patrons are not a homogeneous group. There are no restrictions or requirements to come and shop at Heavenly Groceries. Those of all ages, ethnicities, genders and backgrounds shop at Heavenly Groceries and to us it seems we can't do them justice by defining them by their affiliation with Heavenly Groceries. The patrons of Heavenly Groceries are typically not members of the Northside community, and one of the concepts we struggled with throughout this project was defining the boundaries of community and/or its heart. What/who counts as a Northside neighbor, and how? We're still wondering: is there a critical point of identification that defines the Heavenly Groceries community?


This Is What We Heard

We've had the chance often to chat with patrons at Heavenly Groceries over the past few months. Through various informal conversations we've learned about their childhoods, their ambitions, and their favorite foods. They've shared life advice, hair tips, and recipes. Each person finds themselves in a different position and had a different perspective to share with us. This is what we heard:

We had the chance to get to know a couple of the regular patrons a bit better and speak with them more in depth, or over a period of weeks. We share their stories below:



Berthe outside Heavenly Groceries

Below is a conversation we had with Berthe in her home about her life in Chad and Chapel Hill. In the first half, she talks about her story and struggles as a refugee. In the second half, she talks about her relationship with Heavenly Groceries. The quality of the video is poor as her son, Prosper, was very excited by our video equipment and asked if he could work the camera.

Berthe shows off all of her angles as she models for the camera

Below are some extracts from a field-note written by our classmate Megan, a UNC student, responding to meeting Berthe for the first time:

"I loved how I didn’t have to ask anything; she was comfortable to talk to me...  In a lot of conversations I have today, I hesitate in opening up and making conversation about something that isn’t explicitly asked about... "

"I ask about her family in Africa and she opens up, telling me that she visited her family this past summer. I immediately questioned what it would be like for family to not just be in a different state like mine but in a different country and continent. Family is my go to support system; I was even more astonished by her, knowing that she doesn’t have her family physically here to rely on for help and support..."

"What an impressive business woman...she hurries me around to her trunk and opens a big box to find bright colored and patterned material and clothing that she is referring to. I was overwhelmed by how unique and beautiful each piece was, especially thinking about the time and dedication it took to put a clothing item together..."

"I’ve been trying to picture myself in her shoes ever since, wondering if my outlook on life would be as positive as hers. Just one conversation led to the utmost respect for her."



One of the patrons that we connected with the most over the past few months, an 18-year-old named Majayah, shared her favorite recipe with us: collard greens.

Majayah's Collard Greens


What does it mean to be a guardian?

"I guarantee the women from Heavenly Groceries will pull you off to the side and talk to you as long as you need to talk---and you'll probably end up getting invited to their house for dinner." -Reverend Farrington

The guardians are called, and call themselves, the guardian angels of Heavenly Groceries. They're the people who make sure that Heavenly Groceries is open and operational 5 days a week, and that there is food on the table. They're a big part of the experience of being at Heavenly Groceries, just as Heavenly Groceries seems to be a big part of life for them.

"This is a part of my life y'all...being up here among you" - Mama Kat

During our time at Heavenly Groceries we've been able to form relationships with some of the regular guardians at Heavenly Groceries. The guardians were willing to share their stories to varying degrees, so whilst we have included a taste of their views and experiences, it is skewed towards those who were more forthcoming and talkative. We hope that our relationships with the other guardians will continue to develop as we continue to co-labor at Heavenly Groceries.

"I have met most of the St. Joseph members who work at Heavenly Groceries every day, like Mr. Ron, Mama Kat, Ms. Louise, and Ms. Gladys. They have been so welcoming over the few weeks I have been here and I feel so grateful to have had the pleasure of meeting them." - Logan, a UNC Student

Most of the guardians at Heavenly Groceries are women, perhaps indicative of the special relationship that women in Northside have historically had with food.

"I sense her passion for the restaurant, and, in turn, the students and university community. Ms. Louise cannot contain her excitement for basketball season to begin, especially since football season has not been much fun to watch. Having been a resident of Chapel Hill since birth, she is one of the most diehard Carolina fans I have ever met" - Logan
A photo of some of the guardians of Heavenly Groceries in 2013 - courtesy of Monica Palmeira


Meet Mama Kat

Katherine Council, known as Mama Kat

Through conversations over the past few months, we've learned a lot about and from Mama Kat. She has been working at Heavenly Groceries for 17 years. Previously she worked for 25 years in the cafeteria at Frank Porter Graham Elementary School. She spent most of her time there working at the cash register, and she never turned away children who couldn’t afford to pay -- even though she was supposed to send them to the school office. Many of the students she served have recognized her years later at Heavenly Groceries -- she did not recognize them as adults but they remembered her as being really nice.

Mama Kat used to cook for her family every Sunday, but now they go out to eat since her family won’t let her cook for them anymore. She used to cook for her husband every day. Mama Kat's sister always made delicious chicken and dumplings, which Mama Kat's husband loved. When her sister passed away, Mama Kat tried to make chicken and dumplings for her husband, but he said "don't try them no more" -- she cackled as she told us this story. Everything else he would eat, but she never mastered the chicken and dumplings.

Mama Kat has a big family and food brings them together. She'll still cook but "they have to work with [her]." She told us that last thanksgiving she cooked a turkey. Her daughter Caroline seasoned it, and then Mama Kat had to re-season it, she tells us chuckling.

Mama Kat has a soft spot for younger men, which the other staff volunteers at Heavenly Groceries like to tease her about. She warned us not to bring our boyfriends to Heavenly Groceries.

Mama Kat loves chicken wings-- she would happily have it be the only thing she eats for the rest of her life. Everybody at church knows that she loves fried chicken and they always put it on her plate and one of the stewardesses gave her a whole plate for her birthday. Since we talked with Mama Kat about chicken wings so often, she shared her recipe with us.

Mama Kat's Fried Chicken Wings


Meet Ms. Lil

Miss Lil's domain is the table of sweet goods. Listen to the clip below for her easy banana pudding recipe. (And see if you can hear Lily and Charley laughing in the background...)

"First they say don't use sugar, and now they say Splenda's bad too?"

Ms. Lil is said to make "a mean potato pie." That's the recipe of hers that other people like the most. The recipe for this pie is below (transcribed by Connie for Ms Lil, whose hands were too sore to write).

Ms. Lil's Mini Sweet Potato Pies


How do we fit in?

A question of our positionality

"You're not the first people to take photos of us" - Ronnie

Heavenly Groceries is intimately connected to the UNC - Chapel Hill campus/community. Many of the volunteer staff and the patrons are in some way connected to the university as former employees and the majority of service partners at Heavenly Groceries come from UNC and are introduced to Heavenly Groceries through classes. We are two of those service partners, who were introduced to Heavenly Groceries through a class at UNC. We sought to remain conscious of the power dynamic that being students at UNC afforded us when relating to patrons at Heavenly Groceries.

"[Berthe] comments that many students ask about the accident because it is so physically obvious and they often want to report on it. I hated thinking that I was grouped into this category of students treating her like some sort of study." - Megan


A Note from Connie

On my first day at Heavenly Groceries, I was without clear instructions about what I should be helping with. I saw there was a lot of bread left to be put on the shelves so I carried a bag over to begin helping with that. As a new service-partner I didn't know that bread was Michael's responsibility, and that he was usually not very open to other people helping him with it. Michael was perfectly polite to me, however, and I had no indication that he wasn't happy to have the help. The other guardians (particularly Mama Kat) found this amusing to no end and proceeded to tease me incessantly about how Michael must have a crush on me, because there's no way he would have let me help him with the bread otherwise. However embarrassing the attention and comments were for me, it seemed that I was instantly included. I was teased just as the guardians tease each other, and because Michael trusted me, they trusted me too. Not everybody warmed up to us quite so quickly, but by being present consistently and engaging with those at Heavenly Groceries, we began to feel accepted.

"Even though it was a simple joke, it made me feel like we had come so far from the first time we had met if [Ronnie] was comfortable enough to joke with me. This has got me thinking about the power of casual and light conversation and its ability to bring people together." -- Megan

The guardians at Heavenly Groceries were generous enough to share some of their recipes with us, and we wanted to reciprocate by sharing our own recipes with them.

"I love that. Really good" (Mama Kat, on Connie's banana bread)
"Her support of the entire community and the students who come and go within it makes me realize just how much she loves all of Chapel Hill and not just her neighbors." - Logan


What Happens To The Food?

Food at Heavenly Groceries doesn't just stay on the shelf. It goes into homes and lives. We're so thankful for the patrons and guardians of Heavenly Groceries who were kind enough to share some of their recipes with us and to take photos of the things they cooked from ingredients received at Heavenly Groceries.


Heavenly Groceries: The Broader Impact

What started off as a class project for us, has become so much more. Our classmates who begun by collecting service hours now see the guardians and patrons at Heavenly Groceries like family. Conversations about food drifted into conversations about the past, the future and everything in between. What was once a place to get some work done is now a place to stop by and say hi. To receive hugs like your grandma gives. To laugh. To feel far away from "school life." It's not surprising then, that the folks at St Joseph CME and Northside Neighbors are proud of Heavenly Groceries and everything it represents.

Stacks of The Northside News with a front-story page about an award received by Heavenly Groceries. The folks in Northside and at St Joseph CME are proud of Heavenly Groceries. Photo courtesy of the Marian Cheek Jackson Center.
"I wish I had something like Heavenly Groceries in college that could have reminded me of my mother, my auntie, my home." -Reverend Farrington



We would like to thank all of the patrons, guardians and our classmates that shared their thoughts, feelings and stories with us. Thanks to our professor Della Pollock for introducing us to Heavenly Groceries. We will be back :)

By Connie Longmate and Lily Skopp

As Mama Kat would say: "Y'all be sweet"

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