Pantry plans to buy new location

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The back storage area at Hancock County Food Pantry.

GREENFIELD — The 16 shopping carts are great when it’s time to wheel food out to a line of waiting cars. But when volunteers are assembling boxes and pre-filling them to prepare for the next shift, the carts cramp the space and are pushed outside for a bit.

Hancock County Food Pantry serves more than double the number of monthly clients that it did in 2009, when it moved to its current location at 741½ S. State St. Pantry leaders say it’s been a good headquarters through the years, and they’ve had a good relationship with the landlord, but it’s time to find the right place for the next phase of the pantry’s history.

The pantry is buying the building of a former tool rental business and plans to move pantry operations to 2040 W. Main St., with hopes of remodeling a building and opening there in early 2024. Greenfield’s Board of Zoning Appeals will consider its petition for a conditional use at 7 p.m. Thursday at Keith McClarnon Government Center.

“We were almost at 400 in 2009 — 400 clients a month,” said Liz Rusche, a pantry board member. “Right now we’re over 800 clients a month.”

A move stands to nearly double the amount of pantry space, from 4,000 square feet to 7,200 square feet.

“You see how crowded it is. We put stuff outside so that we could move around, move stuff around,” said Howard Green, president of the food pantry board. “We’ve been saving our money. About four years ago, we said, ‘Look, we need to figure out something. We need to do something, because our base is growing …”

Over the 24 years she’s volunteered at the pantry, Joan Clark has performed various tasks, including going on food buys accompanied by a few volunteers driving trucks. More recently, she and husband John often help unload trucks delivering food to the pantry on Wednesdays.

She thinks a pantry move will be beneficial because the organization can stop renting and eventually pay off a building, one that offers more space.

“I think it’s going to be easier for the clients to come in and out,” she said. “It’s got a lot more area for them to drive through, and the large (roll-up) doors for the trucks to drive up through.”

“We won’t have to unload them outside in the winter,” chimed John Clark.

Green said leaders of the all-volunteer pantry had to, in considering a new facility, think of three points: the safety of those who come for food, the safety of those who volunteer in distributing food, and the safety of the food itself.

As the county’s population has grown and grocery prices have increased, the pantry serves more households in a month. It operates six shifts for pickup each week, giving a household a batch of non-perishables, milk, butter, eggs, cheese and meat that would run about $150 if people bought it at a store. Pantry clients can receive food up to two times per month.

“Our goal is not to be everybody’s grocery store. We are a stop-gap measure,” Rusche said, “for people that lose their jobs, have medical bills — you know, just need a help up … or elderly people that just are having a hard time making their money stretch.”

Amid the volume and the drive-thru format that began during COVID, “we’re sometimes backed out onto State Road 9,” Rusche said. “The new building has an amazing parking lot where we can queue up about 40 cars … in addition to volunteer parking.”

Also, the current building is not air-conditioned, and with large refrigeration units inside it, compressor heat adds some degrees to the inside temperature. Green said it reached 85 degrees inside on a recent day; he admonishes volunteers to drink plenty of water.

As temperatures rise, even more shelf-stable produce such as apples and potatoes are not likely to last as long as they could have, Rusche said.

Pantry leaders want to install large coolers exterior to the new building with doors accessible from inside. That’s meant to leave the compressor heat outside and offer capacity to allow volunteers to roll entire pallets of food in with a pallet truck, rather than manually carrying in each individual box or case.

Pantry leaders also want to build an awning at the northeast corner of the building to shield clients, volunteers and equipment from the elements during pickup.

The concept of a food pantry in Hancock County reaches back as far as the early 1980s, when a couple of volunteers worked with Red Cross workers and local ministers to deliver a food basket to each referred family in need. Supplies for the county “food box” or “emergency food” were at one time kept in an unpublicized location.

Hancock County Food Pantry, in its current form and name, organized in 1993. Among the places it’s been located since its start in a closet at Faith United Methodist Church was a storefront in the first block of South State Street. The pantry moved from there to Pierson Street in June 1999. It shared space there with Hope House before opening at 741½ S. State in June 2009.

Now, architectural plans are posted so volunteers can offer feedback on the pantry’s upcoming next chapter.

“It’s exciting,” Green said. “I think when we showed it to the volunteers, they were all happy.

“I think we’ve even seen people cry a little bit, because some of our volunteers have been here almost all 30 years, and to me that’s cool. They have a real passion for this.”

HOW TO HELP

Anyone interested in donated money, materials or labor toward a new site for Hancock County Food Pantry can email Howard Green, the pantry’s board president, at [email protected].