Food pantries offer choices, healthier fare

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Nearly 70 representatives of food pantries in eastern North Carolina were in Wilson on Thursday to celebrate National Nutrition Month.

The event, hosted by Hope Station at First Christian Church, was a six-county meeting of the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina’s Eastern Regional Talking Council. It’s one of three meetings held this year to provide information, share best practices and ensure food safety standards in pantries and meal sites.

Elizabeth Gerndt, food environments associate with N.C. State University SNAP-Ed Steps to Health, presented the work of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program.

She discussed the importance of food pantries providing healthier food for clients pantries serve.

“I loved being able to join the food pantries in celebrating National Nutrition Month,” Gerndt said. N.C. State University’s SNAP-Ed Steps to Health program is working to help create healthier pantries across the state. It is so exciting to hear that food pantries in Wilson County are interested in taking steps to improve the nutrition and health of their communities.”

Gerndt’s work includes training pantry leadership in how to work with clients in nutrition education and food demonstrations as well as developing client-choice pantries.

Mercedes Sanders, the food bank’s summer food service program supervisor, also shared information about the kids’ summer meals program for the purpose of recruiting sites to participate.

Last year, more than 8,200 children received nearly 270,000 breakfast and lunch meals at no cost from 180 sponsored sites in 34 counties served by the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.

Sanders is in the process of recruiting local sites for this year’s program.


Hope Station also hosted tours of its Client-Choice Pantry, launched in 2016 after operating a traditional pantry for 28 years.

The Rev. Linda Walling, Hope Station’s executive director, said while the client-choice model is growing in popularity across the country, it’s uncommon in eastern North Carolina.

Bonnie Wood, Hope Station’s new pantry manager, said clients love choosing their own food.

“Allowing choice gives clients a bit of dignity at a difficult time in their lives,” Wood said. “It also is more responsive to their dietary needs, cooking capacities and food preferences. Happy clients make it all worthwhile.”

After touring the pantry, Shannon Leidy, the new director of social services at the Salvation Army of Wilson, said Hope Station has figured out the food pantry client-choice system.

“It is organized beautifully and the process is efficient while sustaining the dignity of the clients from the community,” Leidy said. “I took away some small changes we can make to our pantry that will help us to more efficiently serve as well. You can tell that the staff and volunteers really care about the mission and are dedicated to excellent service. This is a great way to address a growing need in our community.”

Gerndt said organizers hope to encourage other pantries to adopt client-choice distribution models like the one at Hope Station.


Hope Station’s conversion to a client-choice pantry was the result of months of research and reflection by Hope Station’s volunteers and staff, coupled with generous contributions from community partners to make the transformation possible., Walling said.

Donations of equipment have increased the cold storage capacities and operational efficiency of the new pantry style, she added.

Donors of equipment and/or funds included the Andy’s Foundation, BB&T Lighthouse Projects, Food Lion Foundation, Healthcare Foundation of Wilson, Presbytery of New Hope, Wal-Mart Foundation, Wilson County Community Foundation and Wilson Rotary Club. Weekly donations of fresh food from Food Lion, Franklin Baking Co., Harris Teeter, and Wal-Mart, plus seasonal donations of fresh produce from the Bridgestone garden, the Winstead Methodist Church Hope Garden and backyard gardeners help Hope Station provide nutritious food choices that might otherwise be unaffordable on low-income budgets.

In addition, churches, businesses, schools, and other community groups have helped improve the quality of pantry foods overall by collecting healthier nonperishable foods.

“Ending hunger and promoting healthier eating are goals that are most reachable when the community works together,” Walling said. “I am grateful for the partnerships that make it possible for Hope Station to do its part.”

olivia@wilsontimes.com | 265-7879