How to Start and Grow a Food Pantry at Your Community Center

May 3, 2021  •   LPi

Person delivery box of produce to senior

As our economy struggles amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for food bank services is exceeding what is currently available in many cities and towns. Even if that’s not the case in yours, the goodwill generated by hosting a food bank at your community center is significant.

Research on volunteerism shows that those who give their time get far more in return in terms of friendships, spiritual growth, self-esteem, and sense of purpose. Volunteering provides individuals and families an opportunity to work together on behalf of others. If you are contemplating starting a food bank, we have a few suggestions to help you get started.

What to Know About Establishing a Food Bank

  • Recipients: First, you’ll need to decide whether to donate the items directly to people in need or to local shelters and food kitchens. If you opt to give items directly to those in need, how will you qualify participants? Some food banks and pantries choose to focus on a particular segment of the population — for example, people with cancer or low-income seniors.
  • Storage: Do you have a place to store donations in between delivery or pickup times? Even a small food bank can take a considerable amount of storage space. Can you purchase a refrigerator or freezer? That will allow people to donate healthy food items, such as milk, vegetables, chicken, and fruit. You’ll likely need to learn more about health department rules for food storage and distribution.
  • Distribution: How will you get the items to the intended recipients? If you opt to donate food directly to individuals or families, will you do that once a week or month using pre-packed boxes? Can you arrange delivery to the homes of those who might not be mobile? That’s a great service to offer, too. Should you decide to share your goods with a shelter or food kitchen, do you have a means of transporting it? If not, does the organization you are giving it to have the ability to pick it up from your community center?
  • Budget: Think about the costs you might incur during both the start-up phase and on an ongoing basis. Storage shelves, boxes, a commercial freezer, gas for your community van, and publicity are just a few budget items to consider.
  • Nonprofit status: Are you a nonprofit that can offer a tax benefit to those who donate? If not, do you have the ability to apply for nonprofit status for the food bank? While the process can be cumbersome, it’s a necessity for encouraging donations.
  • Volunteers: Does your community center have a base of volunteers who can help? Managing their schedules can be time intensive. Do you have someone on your team who can do that? Don’t be discouraged if you don’t. Local churches and senior centers may have people looking for opportunities to give back to their local community.
  • Outreach: You’ll also want to discuss who might be able to donate food (i.e., local grocery stores and restaurants) in addition to individuals and civic organizations. Create a plan for who will reach out to each potential donor, as well as to the media.

The bottom line is that a food bank or pantry sends a message that your center is interested in the welfare of others. You’ll find more tips for distinguishing your community center from others in Little Ways to Brand Your Center.

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