Live United: The Welcome Pantry will start in mobile form in July 

Published 8:45 pm Friday, June 24, 2022

Live United by Erin Haag

For the past year, I’ve been talking a lot about food insecurity. Yes, you can imagine me saying that tongue in cheek — believe me, I know I stand on the soapbox often enough. It’s sort of my job though, so I’ll keep doing it. In the past two years, we’ve done some hard work around food insecurity. It started in 2020 with the Pop Up Pantries. A solid year of handing out boxes of food each month and having conversations. More importantly — listening. We heard the stories over and over about how the food resources we have might not work for everyone. We had the research data. We identified the barriers. We have some solutions in mind, designed by the very people who would be using our services.

Erin Haag

It was determined that what we needed was an additional food shelf in Freeborn County. This food shelf is intended to address the barriers that were identified through our Co-Design Process last year. Imagine a small grocery store feeling, with fresh produce front and center, shopping carts, the ability to choose your own food, read labels and be given the dignity and welcome of knowing that there is a consistent resource for food. Imagine that this food shelf is open after the work day ends and on the weekend. Imagine glass front freezers and coolers, so you can see the food options.  

What we didn’t have was an owner. United Way of Freeborn County’s job in most cases is to bring people and organizations together, to lead the way, support capacity building and hopefully inspire collaboration. There was infrastructure funding available to help with the start-up costs and tons of support — all specifically food the goal of reducing food insecurity. For a variety of reasons, the current food resources were not able to take on a project of this magnitude. We turned to other organizations in our community, and ultimately, we were unable to find that partner. There was support, encouragement, but it’s just not the right fit for those organizations at this time. 

I’ve been joking to my board that we’re not raising our hand first, but we’ll be the last man standing. Well, it’s a reality now. In November, Channel One Regional Food Bank formally asked UWFC to be the “owner” of this new food shelf. The proposal was presented to the UWFC Board of Directors in January 2022, and it was a unanimous vote. 

The support we’ve received has been tremendous. The community members that were involved in the Co-Design process named it “Welcome Pantry.” We’ve got a beautiful new logo, staff, volunteers and lots of excitement. What we don’t have yet is a home. Work is happening for that — to build this brick and mortar pantry. In the meantime, the UWFC team isn’t going to let this slow this down. Physical location, staffing, equipment, all of this is important — but the core mission of what we’re doing is feeding people. Starting in July, we’re going to do just that. Until some of these logistical details get worked out, the Welcome Pantry will be a mobile food pantry. 

Now, this is going to be different from the Pop-Up Pantries in the past. That was an entirely different matter, a program of the USDA and part of the pandemic response. So here’s what to expect. 

 Our first distribution will be the Welcome Pantry at the Armory, hosted on July 7, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Clients will park their car and come inside. After a very short intake form and self-disclosure that they meet the income guidelines established by the TEFAP, they’ll be able to shop from tables. Clients are encouraged to bring their bags and boxes to bring home the food. 

We won’t be able to share the menu prior to the food distribution, due to frequent changes in the supply chain and our own learning curve. However, with a choice model, shoppers can choose what will work with their family’s needs.  

Many of our readers have been asking about when they can volunteer with food projects again. Pop-Up Pantries were a rewarding experience for many, and I’ve no doubt that it will be the same for the Welcome Pantry. We are looking for volunteers. If you’re interested in participating, either on July 7 or in the future, please call our office at 507-373-8670 and speak with Nikolle. Over the next few weeks, the UWFC team will learn a lot, develop some of our own best practices and answer a lot of questions, not only for ourselves but for others. We’ll do our best to keep everyone updated, so stay tuned! 

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.