Taxed by demand, many food pantries are looking to innovate

Volunteers work to pack supplies at the Greater Boston Food BankVolunteers work to pack supplies at the Greater Boston Food Bank

Over the past couple of years Dorchester food pantries and their supporters have been reorganizing, developing new strategies, and redoubling their efforts as they try to keep up with ever-increasing need. For example, the Greater Boston Food Bank (GBFB) is in the process of building a new facility next door to its current Newmarket Square lot.

Despite laudable improvements in the volume and variety of foods dispensed, much food in Boston still ends up being dumped instead of redistributed to the hungry. So everyone is rolling up the sleeves a little higher.

Big-picture analysts say that more cooperation between pantries would result in better service to a wider population. But, recently, the Friday Night Supper Club feeding program at the Arlington St. Church invited over 100 pantry managers to a brainstorming summit; the meeting never happened because so few promised to come.

Eileen O'Shea, GBFB Director of Member Services, has an agency advisory council, consisting of food pantry managers who are supposed to act as representatives of all pantries in their community. All three Dorchester members of the advisory council come from within a few blocks of each other in Uphams Corner. O'Shea (eoshea@gbfb.org) says that welcomes pantry reps from other neighborhoods are welcome too.

While there is clearly a reluctance to meet in person around these issues, pantry managers and bigger hunger-relief agencies are willing to share their latest strategies and best practices.

For example, to support non-English speakers, the staff of Project Bread's FoodSource Hotline (1-800-645-8333) can now assist callers in over 160 languages. The FoodSource Hotline provides referrals to emergency food pantries, meal programs, and screens for the Food Stamp Program.

The common pantry practice of being open for an hour or two one day a week during business hours is not meeting many people's needs. There's a push for pantries to be open in the evenings and the weekend. Blessed Mother Teresa Parish pantry, an independent site not on frequently shared lists, is open three days a week from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Only too aware that patron dissatisfaction with the pre-made bag assortment leads to the dumping of cans patrons don't want to lug home, O'Shea is promoting two versions of the Client Choice model. In the grocery store format, clients can pick what they like from open shelves (within posted limits). With the menu format (which requires less display space, but more help), clients check off on a "menu" of available items what they would like. A pantry staff member then makes up the order.

Sounds like too much work? O'Shea points to Dorchester's Charles St. AME Church, which ranks among the sites that serve more than a 1,000 people a month, as an example of a modified "grocery store" format success story.

Deacon Donald Knight explains that Charles Street's many volunteers make the system work even though they must set up and break down the distribution tables in the lower church hall on each distribution day.

"Usually we have at least twelve different items for each distribution. We have signs over each item saying the maximum number of each item that people can take. We have eight people lined up behind the tables to make sure people don't take more than they're supposed to."

Some civic groups object to having a pantry in their neighborhood because of perceived sanitation hazards and increased traffic. Outside Dorchester, volunteers have skirted these problems with their strategy of "don't come to us, we'll come to you." Quincy Crisis Food Pantry delivers directly to Quincy homes. Church of God of Prophecy in Roxbury also brings provisions to the homebound and those with truly empty cupboards.

Another trend: People, dissatisfied with the content of free pre-made bags, are turning to low-cost programs, which offer more options.

The Four Corners-based Fair Foods sells produce for a dollar a bag from the back of its roving truck (fairfoods.org, 617 288-6185). No identification or referrals are required and Saturdays are their busiest days. About 20 percent of Fair Foods customers are in Dorchester. Some wait up to two hours for the wagon to pull around to their street corner if it's behind schedule.

Jason Cammarata, who works on the Fair Foods truck, reported last week's bag included "broccoli, summer squash, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes, potatoes, bananas, turnips and tangerines." He notes that Fair Foods also sells discounted Pepsi products, including SoBe sodas.

In an endeavor in which the "dignity" of food patrons is much tossed about, Fair Foods feels that it saves customers money on products they are going to spend money on anyhow, even if those items are ones other pantry managers frown on.

Fair Foods has a history of moving warehouses and shutting down periodically to reorganize. Its current downsizing process involves dropping its claim to be "New England's Largest Supplier of Perishable Food." However, the grassroots organization will soon be leafleting the neighborhoods and BHA facilities with its revised list of truck stop locations and times, which will go into effect Feb. 1.

Thanks to a relaxation of regulations Dot residents are now able to use food stamps to buy produce at neighborhood farmers markets, which are carrying the vegetables and fruits that cater to the preferences of the ethnic groups in their areas. Jim Greene, Director of Boston's Emergency Shelter Commission, cites a study showing that Boston was second only to Jacksonville, Fla. in the jump in utilization of food stamps by eligible residents from 2003 to 2008. "Boston was up by almost 66 percent," Greene said.

Meat lovers gravitate toward SERVE-New England (formerly known as SHARE). Each month SERVE offers five packages (most containing only meat) ranging in price from $16 to $25, which are said to be worth $38.

Rev. John R. Odams of Pilgrim Church, which is also a SERVE-NE site, notes a surprising trend in orders.

"One third of participants pay cash, one third use food stamps, and another third are pre-ordering and pre-paying online," Odams says. "That gives you an idea of the range of people using SERVE."

However, Odams offers another more heartening observation.

"A group of developmentally disabled adults used to help deliver our orders from the GBFB every other week. Because of the hunger crisis, these volunteers are now making the trip every week."

If they can pitch in, so can the rest of us. Please consider making continuing contributions to or volunteering regularly with a pantry near you.

Chris Harding is a regular contributor to the Dorchester Reporter and BNN-TVs Neighborhood Network News. He can be reached via e-mail at christopherharding6@comcast.net.