Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 4, 2010

Food pantry lets clients pick what they want


SUTTONS BAY — Bananas or peaches?

Marcia Hoffstetter asked that question over and over again on a recent Monday afternoon at a food pantry in Suttons Bay. The pantry, run by Leelanau Christian Neighbors and located at the town's middle school, has a new method of distributing food that gives clients more choices. Now, pantry users select items they need or like, instead of accepting a pre-bagged sack of food.

"It's much more enjoyable for the clients," said Hoffstetter, food pantry manager. "This way they get to pick what they want."

The options began as the line of clients who waited in a hallway filed into the pantry's room. Food stations, organized by type of food, are arranged in a square. Pantry visitors stopped at the stations and picked out which items they can use, with a limit on how many of each a client can take.

"They are allowed up to 18 items. At the end of the line, we have additional items for them to choose from," said Tom Nell, president of Leelanau Christian Neighbors.

Once clients completed a lap of the food stations, they stopped at a long table overflowing with seasonal fruits and vegetables, frozen meat and bread. More options, like the peach vs. banana choice, beckoned. Aproned volunteers guided pantry users through the offerings and filled plastic bags with everything from cucumbers, onions, tomatoes and green peppers to sweet corn and lettuce.

"You can have as many jalapeƱos as you want," Hoffstetter told one person.

The hot peppers were plentiful that day.

Leelanau Christian Neighbors started a pantry in 1987 at Suttons Bay Congregational Church. A move to the middle school in March gave the pantry more room to display items and accommodated the switch to a "client shopping model," Nell said. The Suttons Bay pantry is open from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Mondays. The group's pantry at St. Gertrude Church in Northport runs from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays.

Pantry organizers hope the new distribution method reduces waste. They figure clients won't pick out things they don't like, are allergic to or won't end up using. It also means volunteers no longer have to pack bags before the pantry opens.

Farms, individuals, churches and businesses contribute. Hoffstetter said cash contributions are appreciated because the pantry can purchase food inexpensively.

Last year, the Northport and Suttons Bay pantries gave out 6,894 bags of food to 625 families, up from 4,816 bags and 527 families in 2008. Pantry users must show proof they reside in Leelanau County, or if a migrant worker, provide the name of the camp. A family of four can receive one bag of food; larger families get two bags.