Historically, the only kinds of organizations that have been able to participate in charity food distribution efforts have been those small number of groups who:
■ Have a building, and
■ That building is located where the need is, and
■ That building’s layout will support a food pantry, and
■ Have enough extra space in that building to accommodate food handling.
These limitations exclude up to 80 percent of all eligible churches and other nonprofit organizations from direct participation in charity food distribution efforts. For example, a church might have a building but the building might be located in a more wealthy part of town where having a pantry would make no sense. Or they might have a building but it might have no space to house a pantry. Or they might have a space but it might be on the seventh floor of an office building, or otherwise not be a reasonable space for housing a food pantry. Add on to these limitations the myriad of nonprofit groups that don’t generally have buildings such as civic clubs, Boy or Girl Scout troops, 4-H clubs and student organizations, and what you find is that we have been trying to fight hunger with both hands tied behind our back! In many communities the need for a building so constricts the pool of available players as to push ending hunger hopelessly out of reach.
Using beverage trucks as mobile food pantries
In 1998 it dawned on our food bank that if we had the kind of trucks that beverage companies use to deliver beer, soda pop, and bottled water to stores—the trucks with pallet-size bays up and down their sides—we could use those trucks as mobile food pantries, eliminating the need for groups to have a building in order to be able to give out food. If they could borrow a parking lot for a couple of hours, they could become and active player in the struggle to end hunger.
We now own four such trucks and dispense more than 500,000 lbs. of food from them per month at locations scattered all over the nine-county area served by our main warehouse. The program we run is very simple. A church or nonprofit group that wants to begin hosting mobile pantry distributions simply signs up to use our services, and then schedules with our mobile food pantry manager the dates, times and places where they would like to host distributions.
Once they have scheduled with us, they can then recruit a dozen or so volunteers to work for about three hours, and can begin their outreach efforts to notify the people they hope to serve of when and where the distributions will take place. Then on that day we load one of our mobile pantry trucks with food and drive it to the site.
The host agency sets up tables around the truck and their volunteers load the tables from the truck. The scene ends up looking like a little farmer’s market. Clients are then able to take a walk around the truck, helping themselves to the goods they can use. Most people take between 25-50 pounds of goods, which is all that the average person can carry. When they are done, the agency loads any leftovers back on the truck, and it goes away.
Do mobile food pantries work?
All of my food bank’s largest user agencies are now almost exclusively mobile pantry users. The largest of them distributed 500,000 pounds from the trucks in 2003. And since late 1998, we have done 3500 distributions involving more than 22 million pounds of food working with hundreds of organizations in dozens of communities.1
What the mobile units permit us to do is mobilize a much larger circle of players into supplying food to the needy, which enables us to increase the number of groups we serve, and expand our distribution into communities and neighborhoods we haven’t been able to reach before.
The entire effort to reduce or eliminate hunger fails if the needy lack reasonable access to food aid.
“Reasonable access” means:
■ That there are enough agencies distributing food to handle the volume of food needed.
■ That those agencies are distributed across the geographic area so that no rural needy person is more than 10 miles from a food aid source and no urban needy person is more than 8 to 10 blocks from such aid.
■ That people who may be in trouble and seeking food aid for the first time can readily find those agencies.
■ That agencies are open enough hours so that people who need help have a realistic chance of getting it, even if their work or other schedule is not particularly flexible.
In the early 1990s when accessibility revelations first dawned on us, we got out a state highway map and drew little circles around the names of towns that had charity food pantries. What we found was that less than half the communities in our service area had such services, and that in a depressingly large number of cases the nearest food aid access was 30-50 miles away from the needy. In our bigger cities we did the same sort of location plotting on a city map, and again found large areas without food aid services. You can’t end hunger if the needy can’t get the food!
Publicize Your Food Pantry
It is equally important that provision be made for people being able to find out about your food aid program. We recommend at least six specific steps to accomplish that:
1. Make certain that everyone in your parent organization—for example, your congregation’s members and staff—knows about the program.
2. Make certain that your community’s information and referral system has current, accurate information about your services and hours of operation.
3. Make certain that your county’s public welfare, Social Security, unemployment and public health and safety offices know about you.
4. Send a letter or brochure with information on your services to every public school, church, synagogue and mosque in the area you serve.
5. Make sure your area’s legislators know about you—their constituent services staff do a lot of information and referral work.
6. Last but not least, take advantage of opportunities for publicity in your local media.
People should do their charitable acts in secret, but food pantries need to be known about. So if some excuse arises, don’t be shy about letting your local media know about that. For example, your distribution passes some milestone such as the number of years open, the number of families helped or the pounds of food handled; or sets some new record, such as “families seeking help increase 25 percent;” or has some noteworthy experience, like “former client returns to head pantry,” or “Boy Scout builds shelving to help area’s needy.” This isn’t bragging. It increases the likelihood that people who need to find you will be able to. Events or updates can also be publicized on National Hunger Awareness Day—the first Thursday in June each year—or on World Food Day, which is October 16.
Historically, many food programs have been open when it was the most convenient for their volunteers. While you have to respect volunteers’ needs, the whole point of these programs is to serve the needy. Many of the needy are working people or are families with children or ailing family members who need to be cared for. They can’t always juggle those other responsibilities as well as they might want to in order to be able to get to the pantry when it is the most convenient for the volunteers who are staffing it. So try as best you can to have your pantry open at least once a week in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening and on the weekend. This gives your clients some real options in being able to access the help they need.
Editor’s note – In October 2014, Feeding America West Michigan distributed its 100 millionth pound via mobile food pantries. ↩