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Fourteen steps to organizing a food pantry

By Barbara Mills Lassonde

During eight years as coordinator of a New Hampshire food pantry serving three small towns with a combined population between 10,000 and 15,000 people, Barbara Mills Lassonde saw the program grow dramatically. By 2002, the pantry was providing needy families with more than 25,000 meals a year plus hygiene items, at an out-of-pocket expense of less than $2,000. She offers the following steps to starting a food pantry in your community.


1. Determine the need. Check with your city’s welfare office and contact other food pantries in the area. If one pantry covers your area but gives only a small amount of food once a month to each family, overlapping coverage might better serve the needy. If no pantry covers your area, there probably is a need. If adequate food is being offered, a competing food pantry could have a detrimental effect.

2. Get permission. For a church food pantry, get approval from your pastor. If your congregation is small, ask churches and civic groups to work with you.

3. Locate operating space. Find a clean, dry area that is free from insects and rodents. Look for adequate lighting, heat, electrical outlets for refrigerators and freezers, wall space for shelving, room for storage and space to move around. Locked doors, handicapped accessibility and nearby parking are important.

4. Notify parishioners and organizations of the pantry start-up and ask for volunteers as well as food and monetary donations. If you need decent shelving, a good operating freezer or refrigerator, etc., mention that. (If you fail to specify a good, operating appliance, you may end up with junk.) Communicate with parishioners through the church bulletin or newsletter once a month or an article each week until you get rolling. Many pantries begin by opening a few hours one day or evening each week.


5. Sign up for USDA food. Contact your county Community Action Program and sign up for free U.S. Department of Agriculture food. They will provide you with an initial start-up supply. Later, the amount of food they give your pantry will depend on the number of meals you provide each month. You will be required to complete a monthly inventory on your remaining supplies, as well as information on the number of people you helped and the number of meals you provided.

6. Contact your local or state food bank for permission to shop there. You’ll need an IRS nonprofit ID number (which a church would have). The food they offer is usually donated by grocery chains, food suppliers, etc., then sold to registered feeding programs at a few cents per pound.

7. Search for other sources. If you are unable to purchase what you need at the state food bank, you can occasionally find cases of food at other pantries at no cost to yours. Ask around to see what’s available in your state.

8. Set up a monthly food collection. Churches can designate the first weekend of each month as “Food Pantry Weekend.” In the church bulletin the previous week, list the foods needed.


9. Get the word out. After acquiring a sufficient supply of food, notify other food pantries, churches in the area, the Help Line, town welfare offices, small-town police departments, day-care centers, schools (usually the school nurse is the contact person for the needy), community centers, and senior citizen and subsidized housing complexes. Placing posters in many of these locations is the best way to get the word out. The local newspaper may run an article on your food pantry.

10. Plan food distribution. Decide how much food you can feasibly give each family. It may vary from several days’ supply to just a few cans.

11. Post pantry rules where they are clearly visible. Rules might include the following: Do not sell or trade food; be honest about needs; food is to be used for your family only; assistance requests are limited to once a month barring extreme circumstances.

12. Staff your pantry. Recruit volunteers and create and distribute a work schedule. Keep a copy posted in the pantry. Familiarize volunteers with the pantry, the inventory and the procedures. Encourage compassion and a nonjudgmental attitude.

13. Keep a record of all income and expenditures. Also, keep a record of who asks for help from the pantry and how often. It doesn’t take long before you learn most individuals’ situations. You can make exceptions for those you know need extra help.

14. Continue to publicize your services. The more you publicize the service, the more food and monetary donations you will receive.

Barbara Mills Lassonde lives in Concord, N.H.

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