Community Corner: Stories from the food pantry

By Drew Johnson

One of my favorite parts of working at South County Community Services is getting to know the clients that we serve, and one of the best ways of doing that is helping someone with a food pantry.

Food is something that everyone needs, so the food pantry is a great way to see a cross-section of the community. Some people come in knowing exactly what they need—these are people who have been here before and want to make it easy on the pantry volunteers. They might help keep track of points or do a little bit of restocking while they’re shopping. Others walk into our building and look like deer in the headlights—they have never been to see us before and they don’t know what to expect. Many of those people have been putting off coming to a food pantry because they are afraid of being judged. (Little do they know, our pantry volunteers are some of the most caring and understanding people around!) Everyone comes in for a slightly different reason and has their own unique history.

Everyone coming through the pantry signs in so that we can get accurate data and track the food we distribute, but it’s when they are walking through the pantry that people really open up. At our food pantry, we utilize a shopping model—our clients are able to pick their own food and only have a limitation on total number of items received (apart from a few difficult-to-obtain items that we put a limit on). While they shop, we follow behind, bagging up the food and keeping track of points.

It’s easy to make conversation about what “the kids” will eat or how to make a meal that the whole family will like and I often catch myself storing away hard-earned tips from other parents. We talk to people shopping after working an overnight and before they go home to crash; we talk to people who are shopping to take care of grandchildren recently placed in their care; and we talk to people who just need to vent.

By the end of the pantry visit, we have had about a 15-minute conversation. Sometimes that might entail a discussion about their situation and other resources that might work for them, or sometimes it’s just 15 minutes of me gleaning tips for getting kids to eat their vegetables from a parent who has kids a few years older than me. In every case, however, we have gotten a little closer to the people around us, built community connections, and learned a little more about being human.

Drew Johnson lives in Kalamazoo and is the Director at South County Community Services. He can be reached at 649-2901 or

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