Friday, March 16, 2012

Yorkville Common Pantry: Healthy Choices

While Facing Hunger in America was in New York City, we had the privilege of a short visit to the impressive, 32-year old Yorkville Common Pantry (YCP).  What makes it impressive?  Certainly not its physical space, which is a small multi-story building rented from the adjacent Episcopal Church in East Harlem.   
Despite its modest space, YCP operates the largest community pantry in the city.  In addition to a hot meals program, benefits outreach, nutrition education, and numerous other services, YCP provides groceries to over 1200 families a week.  Each family can come at most twice per month, and over 7000 different families are served in the course of a year.  The pantry operates with two full-time and one part-time paid employee, and about 26,000 volunteer hours put in by about 6000 volunteers each year. 
Daniel Reyes, Director of Programs & Operations
at the Yorkville Common Pantry, explains the
choice inventory system to Betsy
We spoke with Stephen Grimaldi, Executive Director, and Daniel Reyes, Director of Programs & Operations.  We were particularly interested in learning about YCP’s innovative on-line inventory choice system, which is quite different from choice systems we have encountered at other food pantries. 
Daniel explained that until about 7 months ago, each Yorkville Community Pantry member received a prepacked bag of groceries that volunteers had prepared based on whatever was in stock.  Bags all contained about the same items and differed mainly based on the size of the member’s family (more food for larger families). 
This traditional method of distribution was efficient for volunteers and workable in YCP’s cramped quarters.  However, new guidelines from the New York State Department of Health required pantries to implement a choice program in order to renew their state funding contracts.  YCP agreed that allowing members to choose the groceries they receive was far better, offered a more dignified way to receive food, and enabled members to receive food they actually needed and would like.  But it was not easy to see how to make a choice system work at YCP. 
Choice systems we’ve seen before use a shopping model -- a member walks through the aisles of inventory and, with the aid of a volunteer, selects the items they’d like in the quantities appropriate for their family size.  This model is not feasible at YCP because it would take far more space to create shopping aisles with shelves instead of pallet-loads of food items, far more volunteer hours to stock shelves and assist members as they shopped, much more time for each member to receive their groceries, and thus much slower through-put.  YCP was already distributing food for 4.5 hours, four days a week, and did not want to change to a system that would cause long waiting lines.
Instead, Daniel conceived the idea to put the food choices for the current week on line, to allow members to select the items that they wanted via computer, and to have the volunteers prepare custom bags for each member.  Here’s how it works:
Each week, YCP enters into the computer program the full menu of items available for its members to choose.  The items are displayed on a computer screen, arranged by food group (grains, protein, vegetables, fruits, and dairy).  Each item is shown as a picture and label in English or in both English and the member’s preferred language.  Members select how much of each item they wish to receive, and the computer tracks any quantity limits based on the member’s family size.
YCP member placing her order with the help of a volunteer
  • Members who have access to the internet can place their order online, using the ID number on their YCP member card.  When they complete their order, they’re given a specific pickup time, so there is no waiting when they come for their food. 
  • Members who do not have internet access or who do not wish to order online come to the pantry on their assigned day and sit for a few minutes with a volunteer who operates a tablet computer to enter the member’s choices.  By the time the member walks upstairs to the food distribution area, their order is ready.
We were impressed by the ease with which this system seemed to work, by the volunteers who said they found the tablet computer interface simple to use with no training, and by the generally happy faces of the members we saw receiving their food.  We saw little waiting – a few folks in line before the doors opened at 10:00, and two or three waiting for their orders.

Another laudable feature of the Yorkville Common Pantry is that they offer only highly nutritious food -- food that can be difficult to locate in this part of New York City.   

Slightly over half of the food YCP distributes is purchased, and the other half is donated.  YCP only accepts donations that meet their nutrition standards, which were adapted from state nutrition materials and are designed to help lower the incidence of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease among their members.  YCP makes sure that they offer an array of choices to satisfy cultural and personal preferences, dietary restrictions, and seasonal favorites.  But they turn away donations of sugary, salty, fatty, processed foods. 

This selectiveness puts an extra burden on those responsible for sourcing food for the pantry.  And with the downturn in the economy a few years ago, food donations to YCP dropped by about half.  To fill the void, YCP increased their fundraising, secured some stimulus funds, arranged partnerships with New York state farmers to bring in fresh fruits and vegetables, and began sourcing as much food locally as possible.  

So, if you think allowing food pantry members to choose the foods they receive requires a shopping model, think again.  And if you think pantries always offer less than the healthiest foods, think again.  Think about the Yorkville Common Pantry!
Volunteers filling orders at the Yorkville Common Pantry


  1. This sounds terrific! Very empowering as well as more efficient along with healthier choices.

    You were very close to Drew's school.
    He is at 106th and 2nd Ave. I think.
    Have a good journey,

  2. Hi Betsy,
    Thanks for this - Sharon our executive director here at HGRM just talked to YCP about the use of tablets. We are trying to figure out how to streamline and make our checkout process easy while cutting down on data entry. More research is needed, but it could work!
    Safe travels,