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Monday, 23 November 2015 11:43

Now on its own, The Pantry fine-tunes service model, explores new opportunities

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Michael Merren, Executive Director of The Pantry Michael Merren, Executive Director of The Pantry PHOTO: Katy Batdorff

KENTWOOD — Despite its humble beginnings in 1985 as a food closet to feed hungry neighbors at John Knox Presbyterian Church, The Pantry has evolved into a standalone organization that moved 750,000 pounds of food last year.

Michael Merren, The Pantry’s executive director for the last four years, is one individual that has helped usher in the new era for the Kentwood-based food pantry.

From reducing clerical work via a paperless system to minimizing the amount of unused food thanks to a client-choice model, The Pantry has been able to leverage its three employees and an army of volunteers to continue serving 5 percent to 10 percent more clients every year.

Keeping a finger on the pulse of these types of best practices to service southeast Kent County is the primary reason that The Pantry was selected as a winner in the 2015 MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards in the less than $1 million category.

Under Merren’s guidance, The Pantry has undergone a number of changes and improvements to its service model. One of the more significant changes came in April of this year when The Pantry was recognized as its own 501(c)(3) — breaking away from John Knox. The Pantry filed for the nonprofit certification a year before that.

“One of the drawbacks of being affiliated with a single religious institution is (community members) think (the church is) providing all the help you need,” Merren said. “It almost gives people an excuse not to help and that someone else is taking care of it.

“Now, with our own name, marketing strategy and being separate from John Knox, it makes the community aware – it’s a community food pantry, not just the pantry run by a church. It’s something run by everyone and everyone needs to help.”

The move also allows The Pantry to pursue certain grants and other opportunities that it couldn’t as a religious organization.

In addition to paperless processing and client-choice shopping model, Merren and The Pantry also recently unveiled its virtual store, where people can purchase products to donate to the pantry online.

Through the online store, donors can leverage the relationships that The Pantry has with food providers to make their donations go further. For instance, $16 can purchase 100 cans of fruit through the virtual store.

The Pantry, whose $195,000 annual budget is dedicated mostly to staff and vehicle repair/maintenance, also works to serve its clients beyond donated food. An onsite social worker spearheads the Nutritional Options for Wellness (NOW) program, which is caters to clients with chronic illness.

By making connections with clients, The Pantry is able to refer these clients to other resources that can provide additional services. Merren said a goal of The Pantry is to offer case-management resources to further meet the needs of clients.

For now, the primary objective is to provide food options that meet the tastes and needs of clients. To do so, Merren said The Pantry has even recently focused on purchasing food geared toward ethnic groups prevalent to the area.

“(Under the box-and-go method), people would be disappointed with what they got and what they could make a meal from,” Merren said. “People can now choose more diverse collection. That made a big difference as far as getting the right food to the right people.”


Winner: Less than $1M
Mission: To provide holistic aid to neighbors in need, supplying them with the food and personal care items that they desperately need now, as well as tools of empowerment, through education and one-on-one case management.
Service Area: Usual pantry visitors consist of residents of southeast Kent County with incomes lower than 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines.
Executive Director: Michael Merren
Number of Employees: 3
Annual Budget: $195,000
Best Practices: Client-choice shopping model to minimize wasted food; Paperless client records database; Virtual food store where donors can buy food for the pantry at steeply discounted prices.


• Toni Ter Molen (chair), retired
• Betty Webber (vice chair), retired
• Rev. Erin Fitzgerald (secretary), St. Paul’s United Methodist Church
• Dave Lubbers (treasurer), retired
• Shu Kuik, retired
• Laurie Rhodes, John Knox Preschool
• Kay Scott, retired
• Diane Solomon, retired

Read 3738 times Last modified on Monday, 23 November 2015 11:38
Jayson Bussa

Staff writer/Web editor

[email protected]

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