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At Newton pantry, Regina Wu makes sure there’s ‘food that feels like home’

Dr. Regina Wu, president of Newton Food Pantry, in the pantry at Newton City Hall.Jazmyn Gray

When Newton Food Pantry president Regina Wu reminisces about the road trip her family took to Disney World when she was 9, she doesn’t recall the princesses or Mickey Mouse.

A rice cooker tucked in the backseat with Chinese fish cans. That’s what Wu said she remembers best: the Asian food her mom, a Taiwanese immigrant, packed to save money during their road trip from New Jersey to Florida and the most magical place on earth.

“I remember because it had bones,” Wu said. “At the time I just wanted to be ‘normal’ and eat McDonald’s like other kids. But anytime I think of that trip now, I think of those cans.”

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The first Asian woman to run Newton’s food pantry, Wu said she thinks a lot about how she felt “embarrassed” when other students would make faces at her family’s native Taiwanese food growing up. While other kids ate peanut butter and jelly, Wu ate dumplings and rice.

As an adult, however, Wu said she can appreciate her mom’s cuisine for what it was — the taste of home.

“Food is about more than nourishing our bodies,” said Wu, who is now a doctor at Brigham and Women’s Health Care Center. “I get that now. It is about family, culture, and connection. This is why it became very important to me to make sure we provide culturally appropriate food choices for our Newton Food Pantry clients.”

Now in her second year as food pantry president, Wu said her goal is to nourish clients “with dignity and compassion.”

To reflect the diverse needs of their clientele — many of whom are non-white, non-English speaking — the pantryrecently started partnering with small Newton-based businesses to provide clients with personal care products, fresh produce, and “food that feels like home,” Wu said. She visits the Asian grocery store every week to restock pantry shelves with Asian noodles, while another volunteer visits a Russian bodega.

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The list of new initiatives goes on to include opening Newton’s community freedge, diversifying the pantry’s volunteer roster, calling clients if they haven’t visited the pantry in three months, digitizing records, running a teen ambassador program, forming a committee on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and raising extra funds.

“She’s made a lot of brave choices and really led the pantry to recenter the work,” said Sue Lowcock, who recently started volunteering at the food pantry. “She’s taking everything and recentered it around the client — around the people. It’s important that we have leaders like her in Newton.”

Wu’s precedent-setting agenda has not come without its share of challenges. As the first Asian woman to preside over the food pantry, Wu said, she has navigated micro-aggressions and biases while managing one of Newton’s largest community programs.

Told by colleagues “to please wait your turn” and asked by returning clients where the person in charge was, Wu said her “growing pains” at the pantry have motivated her leadership decisions.

“Change is hard,” Wu said. “But you have to walk in the shoes of the person who is experiencing these pains and slights. And I think that I have, and that’s given me a new lens to relate to our clients.”

Wu said she has lost some veteran volunteers to the new changes, but her volunteer roster has grown to over 200. The pantry has formed community partnerships with over 50 nearby stores and donors. Although the number is hard to approximate, Wu said, they currently serve about 200 Newton households weekly.

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Kelly Davidson, a middle school teacher who has volunteered alongside Wu for the past 10 years, credits the pantry’s community expansion to Wu. “God, she is a master at bringing community together,” she said, remembering a time when Wu asked the owner of a nail salon to donate a gift card while a group of volunteers were out getting their nails done before a gala.

“When it comes to asking people to support community effort,” Davidson said, “she’s just unabashed about it because it’s not for her.”

The food pantry is open on Wednesday afternoons in Newton City Hall. Since the start of the pandemic, clients no longer need to show proof of need.

“It feeds my soul,” Wu said. “This work at the food pantry — it feeds my soul.”

Jazmyn Gray can be reached at newtonreport@globe.com.