From Food Pantry to Food Co-op: Lessons Learned

One 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? Home Sweet Home Ministries in Bloomington, IL made the decision to change the way they'd practice food ministry - going from a pantry, where clients show up to receive a free hand-out, to a co-op, where participating members work together to address their own needs. Their COO, Matt Burgess, shares with Charity Detox some of the important lessons they learned along the way.

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Home Sweet Home Ministries (HSHM) continues to make strides in detoxifying how we offer support to our community. After over two years of planning and implementation, we successfully converted our food pantry to a food co-op about 6 months ago. Within the past two months, our Co-op Advisory Board has started meeting. 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 the most significant challenges was one of the first things we had to do - take a long, hard look at what our preconceptions were about helping people. Reading books like Toxic Charity and When Helping Hurts and a couple trips to Atlanta to meet with Chad Hale at Urban Recipe influenced our thinking significantly. Rather than simply celebrating our outputs, like the number of pounds of food provided or 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 saw the downcast faces of the recipients. Free food came with the price tag of personal dignity.

That was a painful realization.

So, what were we supposed to do about it? Well, the long answer to that question is the "tumultuous journey" to which I referred above! In interest of time, however, let me share with your three things we did to move us toward more a responsible model of food ministry.   

First, we started to listen intently.

We listened for six months before taking any action on what we heard. 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 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 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 be a low income co-op.

Finally, we took the plunge! 

After a short time of this, we took the plunge and changed our operations over to the co-op.  We thought we'd see a significant drop off in households when we made the switch, but we've seen the opposite! In fact, even before we opened we had well over 100 people submit co-op membership applications and we now serve more households as a co-op than we ever did as a food pantry (& have many more on a waiting list to join).  

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 have joined the co-op who have been told in other areas of their lives that they have nothing worthwhile to contribute. When we tell them we need them and want 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 8 months, we’ve seen the co-op members fully embrace this shared responsibility model 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. 

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Matt Burgess is the Chief Operating Officer at Home Sweet Home Ministries in Bloomington, IL. Although he has been trained as a mental health therapist, he has spent much of his career in social work administration and has been blessed to be at HSHM for the past 6 years. 

HSHM is an independent Christian ministry serving people who are experiencing homelessness and/or living in poverty.  For over 97 years they’ve served Christ by providing food, shelter, and hope to the hungry, homeless, and hurting in their community.

Posted on May 22, 2015 .