When planting their garden, the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Moorhead expected to grow vegetables. They didn’t expect it to bloom into a free little pantry for the neighborhood community.
“We have a garden outside and had all this extra produce. Someone in the congregation donated a cart where we could leave it for those who wanted to share. Then we noticed that the people who were stopping really were very hungry. So we started adding things like canned goods and other items that were okay out in the elements. The need was there and growing, and we are trying to keep up,” Lee Grineski, a congregation member who organizes donations and restocking for Ruth’s Pantry Cart, said.
Seeing the need in their neighborhood, the church consulted with some of the local food banks and realized that while there are many resources available in the area, there are also many hurdles people face in accessing them. Such as unable to get to them during business hours, running low before the next visit, or accessing transportation to reach them at all. With the understanding that small, neighborhood pantries can fill a gap in addressing hunger, the First Congregational UCC Moorhead turned their free vegetable cart into a neighborhood resource.
“Before going into winter, a gentleman at our church, Dwight Michelson, built our new, larger enclosed pantry, and painted it as well. He’s amazing,” Brynne VanHettinga, one of the coordinators for Ruth’s Pantry Cart, said.
Stocking Ruth’s Pantry Cart has been a learning experience for the volunteers from the church as they struggle to address food needs in the neighborhood. They have gone from adding things at random to attempting to schedule regular restocking with volunteers. With six church members/families scheduled to fill the cart two or three days a month on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, a couple who takes the weekend shift, and several other members helping to fill the cart on a less “scheduled” basis, the cart still empties quickly.
“We’ve discovered the people who use the pantry are varied,” Lee said. “Some are families, trying to get by between pantry visits when food runs low. We also have a whole group of homeless men who wait when we fill the cart, and take a few things that they can use for lunch. One group may appreciate being able to make a big spaghetti dinner. The other really appreciate cans with pop tops of ravioli, granola bars, cheese and cracker packets, or fruit cups, things they can take with them and eat. We try to address the needs of both groups.”
As Ruth’s Pantry Cart is available to the community throughout the year, another challenge that has impacted the initiative is the weather. While food is utilized quickly enough that their issues with food spoilage have been minimal, the outside temperature greatly impacts the donations they are able to put out.
“Produce can go bad in the summer, and in the winter you can’t do canned goods, or the seams could split and that wrecks the food. You can do things packaged in plastic because there is give in the packaging, but not cans or glass,” Lee said. “We have to watch the temperatures, but you can do fresh fruit and vegetables in the spring and summer, do things like cheese or yogurt in the fall, and even frozen meat in the winter.”
Impressed by the group’s efforts, the Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation named First Congregational UCC Moorhead one of two November grantees, gifting them with $1000 to assist with their next step in trying to maximize the usefulness of Ruth’s Pantry Cart.
“We would like to install some type of insulation/weatherization for the cart so a greater variety of food items can have a longer ‘shelf-life’ in the summer and winter,” Brynne said. “We’re learning as we go.”
The First Congregational UCC Moorhead free pantry is near the entrance of a courtyard attached to the church gardens, offering shady trees and benches for the community. Its location is adjacent to the parking lot, which allows for easy access to the cart for both those who need it and any other community members who wish to make donations to help stock it. Lists are posted on the inside of the cart door: one for sharing the locations of area foodbanks and other resources, and other for suggesting useful donation guidelines for food and other “maintenance-type” items like trash bags and paper towels.
“It’s very ‘take what you need, leave what you can.’ Of course, we accept monetary donations, as well,” Brynne adds. “I don’t drive well on snow and ice, so in the winter I shift from filling the cart to donating money. The church puts it on a grocery card, and if someone doesn’t have money but does have time, they can take the card and shop to fill the cart. We’d love to do more, but we can only do what we have the people and resources to do. We have to try to focus on the need we are filling, and not the need that goes unfulfilled.”
The First Congregational United Church of Christ in Moorhead is located at 406 South 8th Street Moorhead, MN 56560.
The Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation awards a $1,000 gift each month for awesome ideas of all sorts. Grant recipients do not need to be associated with a non-profit. Applications can be made at awesomefoundation.org/ en/chapters/cassclay