Food pantries find education, support in unprecedented programming

HUNGER FIGHTERS: Betty Foti, left, and Juanita Burrell volunteer weekly at the United Christian Ministries food pantry in Jackson County. Photo by Rachel Ingram

Community food pantry workers across Western North Carolina will have the opportunity this summer to participate in a groundbreaking program: a low-cost school aimed at increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of their operations.

“We haven’t really seen … a collective effort from all the resources in a community to provide a single point of training that is very, very specifically focused on food pantries in that region,” says Emily Edmonds, who is in her fourth year of directing the WNC Food Policy Council. “We’re hoping that this will be more of a really focused effort.”

Sponsored by the council and funded by a grant from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina, the Appalachian Food Pantry School is the second, and final, part of the council’s most recent initiative to strengthen food system networks in the area, Edmonds says.

“The demand [on food pantries] in this part of the state has just not stopped increasing over the last 10 years,” she says.

Despite the expanding demand, the support network for pantries has not grown, says Mandi Carringer, an intervention lead at MountainWise, one of the organizations partnering in the initiative.

“Our food pantries and emergency food providers are far too often stretched thin with limited resources,” says Carringer. “We hope that this school can empower these providers with new knowledge and resources that will help them to continue their mission of providing food to our neighbors in need.”

In an effort to provide this training and support to community food pantries, Edmonds says, nearly 20 agencies have joined the partnership, including the Haywood County Health Department, MANNA FoodBank and United Christian Ministries.

The Appalachian Food Pantry School will run July 17-Aug. 11. Each session, held one evening a week, will be three hours long and include dinner, Edmonds says. There is a $45 fee per pantry, but there is no limit on how many participants each pantry can send to the trainings.

Thanks to the Community Foundation of WNC grant, pantries may also receive travel stipends and gift cards to grocery stores, Edmonds says. Carpooling based on the proximity of participating pantries, will also be available.

“The school will provide training in public relations and community development, financial planning and management, volunteer management and retention, pantry partnerships and public health,” says Carringer. “The courses cover such topics as fundraising, grant writing and management, food safety regulations, marketing and social media, strategic planning, volunteer recruitment and retention strategies and more.”

The curriculum for the school was developed, in part, by Jennifer Trippe of MANNA FoodBank. She says topics were determined for each week’s session by identifying needs within the network of pantries.

“MANNA’s mission is to involve, educate and unite people in the work of ending hunger in Western North Carolina. The food pantry school does just that,” says Trippe. “It is bringing together folks who are working in our emergency food network across seven counties — bringing them together, uniting them, and educating them so that they can walk away with the tools they need to strengthen their organizations.”

Kathy Cross, director of United Christian Ministries food pantry in Jackson County, says she can attest to the need for these skills in order to successfully operate a pantry. Training, organization and grant writing have been critical to their ability to offer the services they do on the budget they have, Cross says.

FOOD FOR ALL: The United Christian Ministries food pantry, which allows its clients to pick up food every 30 days, distributed 185,700 pounds of food in 2014.
FOOD FOR ALL: The United Christian Ministries food pantry, which allows its clients to pick up food every 30 days, distributed 185,700 pounds of food in 2014.

The UCM food pantry, which has been open for more than a quarter of a century, is rooted in structure, says Betty Foti, a volunteer of five years. Agency volunteers maintain extensive records on each of their clients, complete ServSafe certification, and foster relationships with numerous corporate partners.

“After 26 years, we’ve ironed out some of the wrinkles,” Foti says with a laugh.

The agency also offers other services, including crisis counseling, budgeting assistance, vouchers for past-due bills, clothing, furniture and more. When they aren’t able to provide certain services, Foti says, they point people toward other agencies and resources.

“We never know who is going to come in or what they are going to need,” says Foti, who, as a member of the WNC Food Policy Council, helped organize the Appalachian Food Pantry School and will be on hand to assist during the trainings.

The school, Edmonds says, is designed to educate and support volunteers in small community food pantries across the region.

“We talk about food insecurity in the mountains, but we don’t talk about the people who are actually [working to alleviate that] on a day-to-day basis,” says Edmonds. “There hasn’t been any support system out there for them until now, and I think this may be a small step toward trying to help them navigate that and get them the resources they need.”

For details or to register for the Appalachian Food Pantry School, visit wncfpc.org.

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About Rachel Ingram
Rachel freelances for Mountain Xpress. She still can't believe she gets paid to meet new people and explore Western North Carolina on her days off from her "real" job as a direct care provider at a residential treatment center for youth (which she also thoroughly enjoys). To round it out, she also likes to drink wine, swim, backpack and cook, but not in that order.

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