Congregational, faith, and community-based organizations desiring to provide outreach services through food pantry projects should consider if they want to initiate a new food pantry service or support an existing one. Key to the decision is the organization’s ability to foster and sustain the necessary financial and volunteer resources. Please use this as a guide to help your organization decide how to move forward with your food pantry project.
Initiate a New Food Pantry
When starting a new food pantry, forethought and planning are extremely important for a sustainable project.
Consider How You Will Staff Your Food Pantry
Here are questions to consider:
- What people are interested and committed to the project for the long term?
- Who is qualified and willing to serve as the authorized decision-maker and legal signee of documents?
- Who will keep the records accurately, and what records will be required?
- How many people are needed to maintain program continuity?
- If a grant is needed for start-up costs, who can write the grant, and what is required in the grant documentation?
Consider How You Will Receive Food
Here are questions to consider:
- Is there a need for a food pantry in your local community? Explore services that already exist in the community. Determine the level of assistance being provided by other organizations. Decided if there is a gap in services that your group might fill.
- What distribution agency is available from which food can be purchased? Consider the distance to an agency and whether mileage is prohibitive in starting and maintaining such a ministry over time.
- What are the requirements imposed by such a food distribution agency?
- What will be the cost of food per purchasing period? In most cases, food is purchased weekly.
- How will ongoing operational costs be covered?
- How will food be obtained and delivered to the church facility for storage?
There should be a food bank (such as Manna, Second Harvest, World Relief, etc.) that receives, sorts, and warehouses donated food items in your area. These organizations obtain food items from supermarkets, farm cooperatives, and other resources. The food may be surplus from harvesting, damaged containers, or items nearing expired shelf life. In large metropolitan communities, there may be a USDA outlet or brokerage organization for USDA that handles commodity food items. Food pantries may qualify to receive meat and canned goods from the outlet.
You should contact one or more of your local food banks to determine the requirements and cost to become an agency member of the food bank. You should also establish the cost to purchase food items from them. For example, some charge a yearly membership fee and charge for food items purchased from them. All food banks require a letter or statement indicating your group has Internal Revenue Service 501(c)3 status. Typically, an onsite inspection of the purchasing organization’s storage and food preservation capability is conducted and continues on an annual basis.
Consider How You Will Store Food
Here are questions to consider:
- How will storage and preservation of food be handled? Investigate state and local laws regulating food handling and storage.
- How and when will food be dispersed to people? It is important to track distribution and become familiar with the demographics that determine eligibility and frequency of distribution allowed to recipients.
In order to receive perishable and frozen foods, refrigerators and freezers must be in place. The number of such depends on the quantity of frozen or refrigerated foods purchased routinely. As an example, if a group qualifies for USDA monthly commodities, the meats obtained are frozen and usually weigh several hundred pounds. Of course, the amount of food obtained depends on the number of families or individuals regularly receiving food. Shelving for proper storage of canned and dry foods allows food items to be stored in an orderly fashion. The premises must remain free of insects and rodents.
Consider How You Will Distribute Food
Boxing or bagging the food for distribution requires a good working area. The level of effort is dependent upon the number of families or individuals receiving help. To facilitate the process, heavy items are put in the box first and damageable items last. It is helpful if there are several people to fill the boxes. After the boxes are prepared, place in the storage area until pick up. Perishable items are not put into the boxes until people actually arrive to pick up the food items.
An organization distributing food to the needy cannot impose requirements of religious involvement or attendance to receive food. Only those qualifications imposed by federal, state, or local agencies determine who can or cannot receive food. The distributing group can set the day, time, and place for food to be distributed.
Consider How You Will Keep Records
Accurate and up-to-date record keeping is a must. USDA and other food bank agencies require certain records to be maintained. Typically, the agency provides guidelines as to what income level qualifies a family or individual to receive food. Signed qualification documents are required from the families or individuals receiving food, and must be kept on file for the distribution agency to review if they so choose.
Develop a Relationship with an Existing Food Pantry
If a congregation does not have all the resources needed to sustain a food distribution program or a new food pantry is simply not needed, they may want to enter into a partnership with another organization to feed the hungry. Most food banks are looking for people or organizations to volunteer labor in sorting through donated food. This is one way to provide help to feed the needy without the sole responsibility of operating a food pantry.
If a congregation wants to do more, they should contact the nearest food bank and ask what programs are in place. Leaders from the congregation may then visit those programs to explore the possibility of the two groups working together. If the other organization is willing to collaborate, consider what the congregation might bring to the partnership that enhances the relationship without duplicating efforts. A fit between the two groups is vital for a harmonious relationship to exist. A written agreement stating the responsibilities and resources each group is committing to the project is important. Be sure to allow for review of the agreement by the appropriate parties to ensure the congregation is not entering into an untenable contractual arrangement.
This guide is created for audiences in the USA, but the principles expressed could be applicable in many cultural settings.