How to Start a Food Pantry in Your Community

Lisa Furgison

Lisa Furgison

Lisa Furgison

9 min. read

Updated November 13, 2023

Have you wondered how to start a food pantry, to give back to your local community? You’re not alone; hunger is a mounting problem in the U.S and abroad. In the U.S., 49.1 million Americans lacked access to a sufficient amount of affordable and nutritious food, according to Feed America. This “food insecurity,” as it’s called, is impacting a growing number of families.

In response to this growing demand, you might consider opening a food pantry or a food shelf to help those in need. Starting a nonprofit like this can be rewarding, but it comes with challenges of its own. If you’re wondering how to start a food pantry, keep reading.

To help those looking to start a food pantry, we asked two experts who work at a food pantry on a daily basis to share insider information on what it takes to start this type of nonprofit.

Rick Birmingham, the director of development at Neighbors, and Allysen Hoberg, the program manager at PRISM, offer some tips on how to start a food pantry, to get your business up and running.

Here’s a little background on the organizations:

PRISM, which stands for People Responding in Social Ministry, operates Marketplace Foodshelf as one of its core programs. It serves 600 families per month living in the suburbs surrounding Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Neighbors assists about 550-600 families per month through its food shelf, which serves seven communities in northern Dakota County in Minnesota. Like PRISM, the organization offers several other assistance programs as well.

With the help of our experts, we’ll outline five topics that every food pantry organizer needs to know about.

Creating a plan to start a food pantry

Much like starting a business, starting a nonprofit requires a plan. To help you create a solid plan, check out our Food Bank business guide. In addition to utilizing our templates, Hoberg suggests answering a list of questions before you help your first client.

Know your service area

  • What is your service area?
  • What’s the demand like in your area?
  • Who will be using your food pantry and how does that affect what kind of food you will give out?

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Your support

  • How many times can a family come each month?
  • How much food can a family take?
  • How is food distributed to those in need?
  • What are your hours of operation?

Internal structure

  • How will the food pantry stay stocked with food?
  • Who organizes and instructs volunteers?
  • What do your volunteers do when they arrive?
  • How does the food pantry stay clean?
  • Who is responsible for day-to-day tasks?
  • How will food storage be handled?
  • How will new clients be accessed?
  • Who is in charge of new client intake?

Outside support

  • Who will you rely on for support in the community?
  • Who is in charge of making and maintaining outside relationships?
  • Can your organization qualify for grants, aid, or other nonprofit funding sources?
  • Who is responsible for fundraising with outside groups?

Getting food on the shelves

To accommodate those in need, you’ll need a steady supply of food to offer. It won’t take long for people to depend on your services, so it’s vitally important to make sure you have enough food on the shelves at all times.

There are four ways to keep your shelves stocked:

Food drives

When it comes to collecting grocery items, food drives are the most popular means of support. During a food drive, you ask community members, businesses, or churches to donate items to your organization. PRISM, for example, relies on local donations from schools and churches.

Food rescue

Hoberg suggests teaming up with local restaurants, farmers, and grocery stores that are willing to donate their leftovers. PRISM works with a regional grocery store—Cub Foods—for fresh food.

Purchase food

There will come a time when you need to purchase a few items. You may hit a slow month where donations are low, or run out of items that aren’t frequently donated. During these times, you’ll need a budget to buy what you need, Hoberg says.

“In addition to donations of food, we also heavily rely on monetary donations, and each week, purchase items like produce, milk, eggs, butter, and cheese for our families,” she says. “ For every dollar donated, we can provide six meals to a family. Without purchasing food, PRISM would have great difficulty responding to the level of need we have in the community.”

Try to form partnerships with local businesses to get food at a reduced rate, or buy in bulk so your organization stretches every dollar.

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Food banks

A local food pantry can turn to food banks for help. A food bank works with big businesses, food distributors, and manufacturers to secure donations on a large scale. These donations are doled out to smaller organizations at reduced rates.

Handling client relations when starting a food pantry

Food shelves help a variety of people, but the people they serve all have one thing in common—they need help. It’s important to create the right kind of environment to make clients feel welcome.

Here are a few tips to do just that:

Offer flexible hours

People who use a food pantry are often “underemployed,” meaning they have a job but can’t make ends meet. To accommodate them, be sure your hours of operation work around traditional nine-to-five jobs.

Conducting interviews

To accept new clients, you’ll need to conduct an interview. Here are several tips:

  • Be friendly and welcoming
  • Conduct an interview, not an interrogation
  • Use positive language that refrains from making the client feel ashamed
  • Make the process as quick and painless as possible

Decide on a food distribution method

There are two kinds of distribution: boxed food and client choice. The “boxed food” model allows each client to pick up a pre-packed box of food, while the “client choice” model offers more of a grocery store atmosphere that allows clients to pick the food they want.

The “boxed food” model is fair—everyone gets the same items, you don’t need the space to set up grocery store aisles, and it’s a simplified method of distribution. However, food can go to waste. Maybe the family has a peanut allergy and the standard jar of peanut butter isn’t helpful. Maybe a percentage of your clients would like more ethnically diverse food. For these reasons, many food shelves like Neighbors have switched to the “client choice” model, which Birmingham says has improved client relations.

“Moving to the choice model was transformational for us, and we highly recommend it,” he says. “It changed all of our interactions with clients in a good way. We listen more and we provide more food they will eat. We actually give away less food.”

Challenges to be aware of when starting a food pantry

Starting a food pantry will come with challenges. Here are a few to be aware of:

Growth can be a hurdle

While the point of a food pantry is to help those in need, accommodating that growth can be difficult, Birmingham says.

In 2010, Neighbors saw an influx of clients. At the time, they were helping about 300 families and assumed that need would taper off, especially considering the recession was coming to an end, but that wasn’t the case.

“We’ve seen a steady rise in demand to over 600 families in July 2014. At present our strong relationships with local stores have provided us with enough food to keep up,” says Birmingham.

Dealing with additional demand puts additional strain on your organization to meet needs and sometimes you don’t know if that challenge can be met, Birmingham points out.

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Lack of space

Food is going to take up space. When you start out, you might not have a lot of food to store, but as you grow, space can become a real concern.

“Space is vital,” Birmingham says. “Sometimes you need room to store surprise donations. Once we received a ton of frozen ribs, but had to find space to store and refrigerate them. I don’t necessarily have a solution for future organizations, but be aware that space is crucial.”

Leadership needs

You need someone to steer the ship. Most food shelves have a board of directors that oversee policies and put key players in charge of the daily operations. Birmingham says there are five key players that every food pantry needs to run smoothly.

  • Director: Someone to wear the many hats, from administrator to cheerleader, from implementing direction from the board to making sure the food pantry passes inspection.
  • Finance: Tracking the finances is vital to running an organization well and providing good stewardship of donations.
  • Food pantry manager: Someone to manage day-to-day operations.
  • Outreach: Get the word out to those in the community to donate.
  • Intake: Someone to work directly with clients, to listen to them and help provide resources.

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Volunteer challenges

Every food pantry needs help to run smoothly, and since your budget will likely go toward food or paying a skeleton staff to handle the daily operations, volunteers will be the lifeblood of your organization, Hoberg says.

“Volunteers pose challenges in consistency and quality,” she says. “Retention and reliability can also be an issue. We work with a majority of retired volunteers, many of whom leave for the winter, so we have to plan accordingly.”

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Resources to help you start your food pantry

Can you suggest additional resources, or do you have tips to add based on your experience? Feel free to add to our guide in the comment section below.

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Content Author: Lisa Furgison

Lisa Furgison is a multimedia journalist with a passion for writing. She holds a graduate degree in mass communications and spent eight years as a television reporter before moving into the freelance world, where she focuses mainly on content creation and social media strategies. Furgison has crisscrossed the U.S. as a reporter, but now calls Key West, Florida home. When she's not conducting interviews or typing away on her laptop, she loves to travel.