Implementing a client choice food pantry model

The Bread of Life Pantry in Baldwin, Michigan will be opening as a client choice pantry with support from MSU Extension and a USDA Voices for food grant.

Many food pantries in Michigan don’t allow clients to choose their food. With limited volunteers, giving pantry clients a prepackaged box or bag of food can be easier. However, clients are often given food they don’t like or won’t use, resulting in waste. According to Waste Not Want Not research, of the families receiving a standardized box, approximately half the food received is wasted.

In the past several years, many pantries across the country have moved toward a client choice model. Using this model, the food pantry is arranged similar to a grocery store, permitting clients to choose the items they desire. Clients are allocated a certain number of food or personal care items based on their household size. Shoppers leave with what they have chosen and can use, thus less waste.

Research at Texas-State University- San Marcos found the stigma associated with receiving food from a pantry is reduced through creating an atmosphere of autonomy through the client choice model. The pantry also benefits through a streamlined inventorying and purchasing process.

The Bread of Life Pantry based in Baldwin, Michigan, will launch a guided client-choice food pantry model this spring based on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s MyPlate program. The goal is to promote health, a balanced diet and food security. Guided client-choice pantries increase the interaction between food pantry volunteers, as volunteers help clients shop and promote fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein.

The conversion of the Bread of Life Pantry to a guided client-choice model was made possible through the Voices for Food multistate grant project funded by USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative through Michigan State University Extension as well as by contributions by several local businesses and foundations such as the Lake County Community Foundation.

Kendra Gibson, a registered dietitian and nutrition program instructor with Michigan State University Extension, is assisting the Bread of Life Pantry with their implementation of the guided client choice model. Gibson secured grant funds to allow the pantry to purchase a large freezer/refrigerator unit, a food labeling system and is helping to design shopping guides using the MyPlate model. Gibson says the client choice system will help people tailor their diet to best fit their situation including food allergies, or if they lack refrigeration or cooking equipment. She has already observed positive changes in food purchasing for the pantry, shifting to quality food over quantity.

“In addition to providing healthier food, the choice pantry will also allow pantry staff and volunteers to interact more. This includes time for sharing nutrition information and building more authentic relationships with clients. We hope volunteers and clients build trust, which will increase social capital in the community,” said Gibson. 

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