The Yooper super-warehouse
To serve 1,300 affiliated food pantries and other agencies in 40 counties, Feeding America West Michigan operates six branch warehouses. At most of the warehouses, people who run the pantries pick up food to stock their shelves.
But at Feeding America West Michigan’s Ishpeming branch warehouse, the pantry shelves are right there in the warehouse. What’s the difference between a food pantry and a food warehouse? A food pantry operates somewhat like a retail grocery store: That is, people come to the pantry to shop for themselves and their families. (But unlike grocery store food, pantry food is free to people in need.)
In contrast to a pantry, a warehouse typically doesn’t serve individuals or families, but the Upper Peninsula didn’t have enough pantries. So Branch Manager Dave Mason set up a pantry that operates two days a month and usually serves 250 to 300 families.
“Seven years ago, John Arnold (former Food Bank Executive Director) said we needed to get more food out to hungry people up here,” Mason says, “and the quickest way to do that was to set up a pantry right here.”
It’s a small operation, open the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month. But it’s hugely important in the Ishpeming area. “Most of our pantry clients used to come in just once or twice, but now it’s getting harder for people to get back on their feet,” Mason says. “So we’re seeing more of the same people month after month. It’s difficult for people out there.”
Mason, whose staff is “one part-timer who’s always out in the truck,” relies on volunteer help to run the twice-monthly pantry. The volunteers include local clergy and a half-dozen clients “who have come in for food and decided they wanted to help.”
He and his volunteers take pride in the pantry’s “client choice” approach (allowing people to choose food they’ll use, rather than handing out boxed assortments) and its welcoming atmosphere.
That means a lot to Mason. “We don’t ask invasive questions and we don’t limit people to once a month like some places do. People feel comfortable here, and we think we may have influenced some other pantries in the area.”
Running the pantry, he says, “may be one of the most beneficial things I’ve ever done.”