Hunger is a massive worldwide problem. In the U.S. alone, 49.1 million people lack access to affordable, nutritious food. Food insecurity is a big deal.
A food pantry — big or small — is one way to address this lack in your community. Starting a pantry can be extremely rewarding, but there are challenges. Let’s walk you through the basic steps.
What Is A Food Pantry?
Simply put, a food pantry is a nonprofit that takes nonperishable food donations and distributes them to individuals and families in need. It can be big, or it can be small. The bottom line is that they help support neighbors in need.
Before you begin your journey, reach out to any existing pantries in your area and ask them how they got started. They can help with advice and point you in the right direction(s).
Steps to Establishing A Food Pantry
Find A Place To Store It
The number of donations the pantry receives can vary throughout the year, so finding a place large enough to accommodate intake is essential. If you work with a local homeless shelter or church, there may be a spare room that can be used to store donations. If you’re operating alone, you might be able to keep food items in a garage or basement.
Reach Out For Donations
Work with schools, churches, grocery stores, and local government agencies to help provide food donations. These organizations can recommend any groups in particular who need support and help build a client basis within the community.
If other food pantries are in the area, let them know about your operation. Some pantries might have food surpluses you can purchase or share. They could also share helpful tips.
Meet With Prospective Users
Meeting with the individuals and families that will come to the food pantry will help you get a general idea of their needs. Post flyers or advertisements around town as a way to reach out to community members. Then ask those who would like assistance to meet with you so you can better assess the food-based needs within the area.
You can find out how many individuals and families you’ll be providing food for, what types of food they need, and how often you should open the doors.
Write down dietary needs, any food allergies, and the size of their family. This information will help you better assess what to prepare. You’ll also learn about the kind of food supplies you’ll need to gather.
Hold Food Drives
Food drives are the primary method food pantries use to start collecting supplies. Contact local churches, schools, office buildings, gyms, and other establishments to see if they’d be willing to host the events. Specify the types of food you’d like to collect – bread, pasta, canned goods, etc. Then hang your flyers and posters throughout town to draw attention to the drive. Social media can also be helpful.
It’s also beneficial to ask local grocery stores to donate. Not only will it give them good publicity, but it will also dramatically increase the amount of food collected.
Use Drop-Off Bins
Food pantry donation boxes are usually set up at local grocery stores, offices, and other local businesses. Talk to the business owners to get permission and find out where the best spot to set it up would be. Where I live, we have a few spots with drop-off boxes, including a couple of grocery stores and the public library.
You might have to purchase food items to restock the pantry shelves. Sometimes things aren’t being dropped off, or the local markets don’t have much to offer.
Ask Local Grocery Stores For Donations
The most significant and consistent donations often come from local grocery stores. Stop into local stores and explain that you’re trying to start a community food pantry. Ask if the grocery store regularly has food items they would be willing to donate rather than throwing them away. Many grocers will likely be willing to donate items approaching their sell-by dates.
If managers or store owners are skeptical, show them a piece of mail with the food pantry’s name and address on it, or paperwork regarding the pantry’s opening. Alternatively, invite them to come by the food pantry when you pass out food boxes. It also helps to remind grocers that they’re not losing money by donating food since it will likely end up in the dumpster.
If the stores agree to make regular donations, you’ll likely have to pick them up from the stores. It’s best not to expect the stores to bring the food to the pantry. Another thing to do is to check with local restaurants; some will donate the food left at the end of each shift.
Process Items As They Come In
You will need to have shelving established to separate and store items according to the product type. Always double-check expiration dates and toss anything past their dates.
Store dietary alternative items separate from the rest of the food. Items that are sugar-free, gluten-free, or dairy-free should be reserved for the individuals that have listed their special dietary needs.
Distribute Food To The Community
Now comes the moment you’ve been waiting for. Once your schedule is established, open the doors and begin passing out food to community members needing a little assistance. This is the best part because it’s the reason the pantry got started to begin with!
Set up food boxes ahead of time; this way, the process of handing them out runs more efficiently. You’ll want to try to have a variety of foods in every box to keep a balanced diet.
Some food pantries will also hand out other supplies, including baby formula, cleaning essentials, sanitary needs, and clothing. This is why it’s best to speak to community members because you can try to include what may be lacking.
A smaller variation on this idea are free-standing outdoor cabinets, like those “little free libraries” you might see around town. Instead of books, some neighbors fill them with canned goods and the like, free for the taking.
Considering how much excess food winds up in landfills, a food pantry — even a small one –is a smart (and sustainable) way to help others in our community.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain image)