How to Start a Community Outreach Food Pantry

by Contributor

Setting up a community food bank can be a daunting task but with persistence and determination it can be done. You will need the support of many volunteers and local businesses to start your community outreach pantry, and will need to find ways to raise food donations and funding. Be sure you are mentally prepared to work hard on a sustained level before you begin this project, as people will come to rely on your service.

Ensure there is a need for an outreach food pantry in your community. Investigate the existing food pantries in your community. Are there portions of your geographic area that they do not serve? Are there any times of the day in which no existing food pantry is open? Are their services limited? Is the amount of food they provide to families requesting help sufficient? How many times will they serve the same family in a month, quarter or year? Have they ever run out of food? Ask the workers if they know of particular unmet needs. The answers to these questions will reveal whether you have an unmet need in your area for another food bank.

Find community partners. Develop a simple, persuasive and sincere presentation about your vision which can presented in person or sent through the mail. Include the information you discovered regarding the unmet needs in the community. Give specific examples. Get the local schools involved by speaking to the PTA. Then get the students involved by holding food drives or collecting change from the cafeteria. Arrange to speak at local ecumenical church groups, Jaycees, Lions, Kiwanis and other service clubs in your area. For help with start-up costs, talk to your local community foundation. They might be able to help with things like refrigerators and freezers, shelving and other necessary equipment.

Find community volunteers. Churches are a good place to find volunteers, but try to get volunteers from several different churches instead of just one large church. Two volunteers per session is sufficient. For each day that you are open you will need eight to 10 volunteers who each work one day per month. Their duties will include packing and distributing groceries, sorting incoming food, stocking the shelves and keeping records. You will also need a coordinator who can be in charge of everything except screening. The coordinator will arrange the volunteer schedule two months in advance, arrange for substitutes when volunteers can't work, check the food supply and serve as the liaison with local groups who provide needed items.

Find a suitable structure. Your patrons may not be able to mount steps, so ground floor placement is necessary. Heating and air conditioning is vital. Your location must not go below 45 degrees or above 85 degrees. Telephone service is important. The structure should be safe. It should have lockable doors and windows and security grilles on the windows if necessary. The walls and floors should be in good repair and washable. Special non-toxic paint or sealer approved for food service should be applied to them. Regular pest control service should be performed. Church kitchens work very nicely.

Assure suitable dry storage. Is it possible to accommodate storage of non-food items separate from food products as required? Is there enough space for storing all your items? No item can be stored directly on the floor. Are thermometers present in all dry storage areas? Is easy stock rotation possible? Are the surfaces a non-porous, washable material? Are the surfaces washed regularly with a USDA approved disinfectant?

Assure proper cold storage. Will the present refrigerators and freezers be able to accommodate your anticipated cold food load? Are they large enough to allow for easy stock rotation? Do all refrigerators and freezers have working thermometers mounted inside? Do refrigerators consistently maintain no higher than 45 degree temperature? Do freezers consistently maintain no higher than 0 degree temperature?

Develop organizational policies. When will your hours of operation be? The more consistent you can be with days and times open the more patrons you will serve. Evening and weekend hours are especially helpful for low-income families. Who will be served? Must they be residents of your local community? Will you require proof of residency? Will their family size or income determine eligibility? How will you verify these? What other questions do you want to ask them?

Post your organizational policies in a place where your future patrons will see them. Also, send your hours and policies to other local community services such as the Social Security Office and local branches of the United Way, the Salvation Army and Feeding America who will be able to direct people who might need your service to your pantry.

Develop a method for tracking who your patrons are. Keep records of their addresses, the number of people in their families and a Social Security number or driver's license number.

Stock your shelves before opening. You can solicit contributions from churches or other groups. Churches often have food collection on a continual basis as well as sponsor special collections. One successful collection project is the "Brown Bag" project. Participants are given a brown grocery bag with a list of groceries and other goods inside. Participants fill the bags with the items on the list and return them. A sample list to feed a family of four for three days would consist of: 48 oz juice, 48 oz fruit, three cans soup, 13 oz tuna, two cans chili, one jar peanut butter, one box cereal, one box crackers, one box macaroni and cheese, one box powdered milk, three cans vegetables, one small package rice or noodles and one loaf of bread. Extra items might include baby food, diapers, soap, toothpaste and shampoo. As you receive the merchandise arrange it on your shelves just as the grocery store does. You should be able to see all of the inventory you have to choose from. Duplicates should sit behind one another. Cycle out food that is past it's expiration date.

Preparing a food packages. Determine how much to pack based on family size and how long it should last. You should choose which foods to include in the package based on the family's preferences. You don't want to be giving canned spinach to people who don't like it. Be sure each package includes enough nutrition for at least three days of breakfast, lunch and dinner for each person in the family. If possible, include drinks and snacks. Check expiration dates as you pack to be sure nothing is expired. You may also include non-food items such as laundry and dishwashing detergents, toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, shampoo and household cleaners. Pack these in a separate bag.

Send out progress reports to contributors so they know how their donations helped hungry people.

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