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Sunday, 21 June 2015 22:00

Food pantries adopt best practices in serving clients, fundraising

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The Pantry, located at 4150 Kalamazoo Ave. SE in Grand Rapids, has had to adapt its business model to the changing needs of its clients. In particular, that’s led to more of an emphasis on fresh produce and a focus on the client experience, said Executive Director Michael Merren. The Pantry, located at 4150 Kalamazoo Ave. SE in Grand Rapids, has had to adapt its business model to the changing needs of its clients. In particular, that’s led to more of an emphasis on fresh produce and a focus on the client experience, said Executive Director Michael Merren. COURTESY PHOTO

When guests visit The Pantry in Grand Rapids, their experience is not completely unlike the one that most people have when they go to their neighborhood grocery stores to refill on household essentials.

And that’s by design.

“They will go around with their shopping carts and bags, and the first thing they come to are the fresh fruits and vegetables and they move on to the freezer, where there are a lot of frozen dinners and meats,” said Michael Merren, the executive director of The Pantry, located at 4150 Kalamazoo Ave. SE in Grand Rapids. “Then there is our retail space with canned goods, boxed goods and other things. The experience isn’t much different than me going to Aldi, where I do most of my grocery shopping.”

This grocery store model is not something unique to The Pantry, either. Food pantries across West Michigan, and even throughout the rest of the state, have deviated from the antiquated model of five to 10 years ago, when canned food drives and pre-packaged boxes of food were a best practice in feeding the hungry.

In fact, The Pantry provides an accurate snapshot of the evolution that many pantries have gone through over the last few decades. Beginning as a ministry through John Knox Presbyterian Church that offered hungry members of the community boxed food from a food closet, The Pantry joined the Access Pantry Network in the early ’90s to establish regular hours and a steady stream of resources coming in.

That model stuck until about four years ago, when Merren came to The Pantry from Mel Trotter Ministries and continued the evolution by doing away with pre-packaged boxes of food and even adopting a paperless application system to minimize wait times and shrink office space. As a result, last year The Pantry moved 750,000 pounds of food and it continues to serve 5 percent to 10 percent more people every year.

These were necessary measures, not just for The Pantry, but for all food pantries to remain effective in their mission, Merren said.

“One of the big transitions (in the industry) is client choice,” said Andrew Steiner, communications specialist for Feeding America West Michigan. “(Before that), the food banks would pack up a lot of food boxes and send them to agencies and food pantries and they would provide those to the client.

“What was in the boxes is what they got — even if there was peanut butter and they had a peanut allergy, tough luck. And, as a result, there was a lot of waste in the hunger relief system.”


While it doesn’t come without its share of challenges, the client choice model has become the norm for food pantries as they achieve objectives on a number of fronts.

Not only does the model offer pantries cost savings by eliminating the need for clients to trade or throw away the food they can’t use, but it also helps build a community within the pantries.

Merren explained that the older model created almost an adversarial dynamic between the pantries and their clients. The client choice model helps clients retain dignity and provides pantry staff an opportunity to offer counsel.

“We provide each person that comes through with a personal shopper that knows the USDA guidelines and helps the person to shop,” Merren said. “A lot of times, what I hear from our guests and volunteers is that the exchange while they’re shopping is a very good experience for everyone involved.

“As far as dignity and equality, when we were preparing the boxes to just give them, there was a disconnect with what they needed and could use.”

But to provide the offerings of a typical grocery store, it means creating an inventory and infrastructure that mirrors that of a for-profit store.

For Feeding America West Michigan, Steiner said there was definitely a transition period in moving to a more high-tech, efficient infrastructure to match this changing model.

“I think it took a little time to transition to our bar coding system in the warehouse — moving from a model where everything is written down,” he said. “That’s a big transition to come up to speed with that. But it’s a lot more efficient for us.

“I don’t think that’s an issue specific to nonprofits, either. There are so many doctors’ offices that have all paper records.”

Additionally, Feeding America West Michigan has plenty of for-profit experience on its team, which has helped it lead the charge in the changing landscape of food pantries.

“Part of it is getting people with for-profit experience on our team,” Steiner said. “For example, two of the members of our food sourcing team come from the for-profit industry. We have one from Sysco and another from Meijer and, on our board, we currently — and in the past — have members of Meijer, Sysco, Country Fresh and Spartan. We really look to the for-profits for the expertise.”

Another point of emphasis for food pantries is stocking fresh produce. Currently, 27 percent of Feeding America West Michigan’s food volume is comprised of produce, which is 67 percent more than this time last year. While produce requires more handling and unique storage demands, Steiner said it is ultimately worth it.

“We’ve moved from distributing bulk calories to nutritious food,” Steiner said. “We recognize that the need is for more nutritious food in general. If you are a low-income person and trying to stretch a dollar, it’s easier to buy items off the value menu, but it’s not healthy.”


Along with the changing model for food pantries comes evolving needs in terms of giving. While Steiner and Merren both admitted that they would never want to turn anyone off from giving, it was important to stress that conventional food drives and food donations are wildly inefficient when compared to cash donations.

With cash, Feeding America West Michigan and other food pantries can leverage their relationships with vendors to stretch that money so much more than any individual person could.

Steiner pointed out that one dollar — which would buy one small item at the grocery store — can be used to distribute four full meals by Feeding America.

Merren said this is an important dialogue to have between the pantries and those that donate to them. It is so important that Merren and his team are working to implement an online interface that will provide a visual representation of how much more effectively The Pantry can stretch monetary gifts.

“We have 25 churches that support us — some of them are mega-churches but there are some smaller ones, too,” Merren said. “If they come in with a small shopping cart, that goes out the door in five minutes. It’s not cost-efficient, but they’ve been doing it this way for a long time.”

Read 3100 times Last modified on Sunday, 28 June 2015 18:00
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

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