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From Food Pantry to Food Co-op: Lessons Learned

BurgessM 0416CEUOne of the most common forms of charity is food for the hungry. How much of that work, though, is actually contributing to food security and long-term, sustainable progress for families? The organization I work for named Home Sweet Home Ministries (HSHM) made the decision to change the way we practice food ministry – going from a food pantry, where clients show up to receive a free hand-out, to a food co-op, where participating members work together to address their own needs.

After over two years of planning and implementation, HSHM successfully converted our pantry to a co-op about 18 months ago. We call our co-op “Bread For Life,” and through this ministry the co-op members gain access to real food and real community.

It has been a tumultuous journey from pantry to co-op, but without a doubt worth every bump and challenge along the way. I’d like to share with you one painful realization we came to and three steps that moved us forward into a new and healthier model of charity.

A Painful Realization: One of our most significant challenges was that we had to do: take a long, hard look at our preconceptions about helping people. Reading books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts, and taking a couple of trips to Atlanta to meet with staff at Urban Recipe (a low income food co-op) influenced our thinking significantly. Rather than simply celebrating our outputs, like the number of pounds of food we provided or the number of households we served, we started to look at the outcomes, the difference these services/resources were – or were not – making in the lives of the people we were serving.

It was only when we stepped back from the action of running our food pantry that we could see that we were providing emergency food assistance – which should be a one-time, short-term intervention – to the same individuals and families month after month. We also became aware of the feelings of shame, embarrassment, and discomfort our pantry recipients were experiencing. Once we took the time to honestly look and listen, we heard statements like, “I can’t believe I have to come to a food pantry,” and we saw the downcast faces of the recipients. The free food we were offering often came at the cost of program recipients sacrificing personal dignity.

This was a painful realization.

So, what were we supposed to do about it? Let me share with you three things we did to move us toward more a effective model of food ministry.

First, we started to listen intently. We listened for six months before taking any action. To do this, we enlisted the help of local college students and started asking our pantry customers questions. We asked about their experience with us, about their use of other food pantries in the community, and about their thoughts on the food co-op model. An overwhelming majority of the people we spoke with expressed excitement about the prospect of contributing to their own well-being and food security and were intrigued by the co-op concept.

Next, we made some incremental changes. We then began to evaluate the feasibility of converting our pantry to a co-op. Rather than make the leap all at once, we first converted our pantry from a ‘prepackaged’ model (we packed boxes of food and gave them to people regardless of their preferences) to a ‘choice’ model (where our pantry customers could shop for the food items they liked and leave behind the items they didn’t). This involved changing the physical layout of our food storage area and adding equipment like glass-front coolers and freezers that are conducive to the shopping experience. We were blessed with the support of local businesses who provided funds to purchase a new freezer for this purpose. At the same time, we started to inform our customers about our upcoming change to becoming a low income food co-op.

Finally, we took the plunge! At last we took the plunge and changed our operations over to a food co-op.  We thought we’d see a significant drop off in households when we made the switch, but we’ve seen just the opposite! In fact, even before we opened, over 100 people submitted co-op membership applications and we now serve more households as a co-op than we ever did as a food pantry (and we have many more on a waiting list to join).

In our co-op model, rather than simply providing free access to food, we also began providing opportunities for our customers to acquire new skills and build their capacities. Each member of the co-op helps perform the essential functions of running the co-op – tasks like stocking shelves, sorting and labeling donated food, cleaning, assisting other members to shop, and even performing some administrative tasks.  Our staff, volunteers, and co-op members work alongside each other and develop meaningful relationships in the context of their work.

Now, with an active co-op membership in excess of 425 households, the message is clear to us – people want to be given the opportunity to provide for themselves & will jump at the chance to do so. We have people who joined the co-op that had been told  they have nothing worthwhile to contribute. When we tell them we need them and want them to utilize their God-given talents and abilities, they positively light up!  Our Co-op Advisory Board shares responsibility with us in charting the future direction and scope of the co-op. We take their guidance on things like membership requirements, food products to stock, classes to offer, etc.

Over the past 18 months we’ve seen the co-op members fully embrace this shared responsibility model for the provision of food assistance.  When we give tours, our co-op members chime in with enthusiastic comments about their experiences.  Our members tell their friends and family about the co-op and encourage them to join, too.  Based on these and other affirming responses from co-op members and others in our community, we believe offering food assistance through the co-op model is truly a way that helps restore dignity and a sense of capability to people while at the same time easing their struggle to feed themselves and their families.  We’ve even begun to gather data using structured surveys to measure the change in our members’ sense of hope in their lives, and anticipate that these data will support our anecdotal observations thus far.

Do you have a story to share about poverty alleviation in your community? If so, please consider joining me and other NACSW members who have launched the Poverty Alleviation member interest group. We can use your help in sharing ideas and inspiration with the rest of the NACSW membership. For additional information about the Poverty Alleviation member interest group, contact Rick Chamiec-Case. 

Matt Burgess, MA, LCPC is Chief Operating Officer of Home Sweet Home Ministries, which is based in Bloomington, Illinois.  He has been a member of NACSW since 2013. 

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from material first published on www.charitydetox.com on May 22, 2015

5 thoughts on “From Food Pantry to Food Co-op: Lessons Learned

  1. Very interesting concept. Can you give more insight in how the co-op model works, where we can find information on the structure, etc. Thanks.

  2. Shirley, the co-op works through the combined contributions of the people being served and providing the service. We collaborate to help people achieve food security while also restoring a message of dignity, value, and capability to the process. You can feel free to reach me directly with detailed questions. You can visit our website at hshministries.org to get my email and phone number.

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