What to Expect When Using a Food Pantry for the First Time

For many Americans, 2020 brought unforeseen circumstances such as family changes, loss of employment, and mounting bills. With in-person school almost completely disappearing, many students were deprived of reduced-price meals as well.

Feeding America—the country’s largest anti-hunger organization—handed out 4.2 billion meals from March through October 2020. This amounts to a 60 percent increase in food pantry users throughout the pandemic, nearly 40 percent of whom are first-time users.

These factors made it difficult for many families to make ends meet. In turn, many are using a food pantry for the first time. If you are facing a similar situation, you may be unsure of what to expect.

Read on below for a complete guide on what to expect when using a food pantry for the first time.

What to Expect From a Food Pantry

Many Americans are experiencing food insecurity for the first time and may not be aware of all the available resources. In reality, most communities have various options for residents in need.

There is no one-size-fits-all for food pantries. Society has negatively connotated these locations, leaving many first-time users apologizing to staff for their attendance.

But in reality, there is no need to harbor these feelings. Remember you are taking a critical step in asking for help to feed your family.

It’s important to go in with an open mind. Nobody is there to judge you or to question your intentions. Just focus on doing the right thing to make ends meet.

With that said, there are several steps you can take to make the entire process more comfortable. The first is to locate the available options in your area.

When searching around for local options, you may see different types of locations in your area. This may include a food pantry, cabinet, or bank.

It’s good to understand their similarities and differences so that you can locate the best option for your circumstances.

Food Bank

In essence, a food bank is a centralized hub where food flows to individual distribution locations. These non-profit institutions collect and store large amounts of food both donated and bulk-purchased.

From there, food banks distribute these foods to member organizations in their respective regions.

If you see food banks in your search results, it’s important to note they are not open to the public. A food bank is not a location to show up in search of food donations. Instead, they serve as warehouses to distribute food to local pantries and kitchens.

However, food banks serve as a great resource to find more information. Their websites will clearly list locations where they distribute food. This is a great starting place to then determine the best location for your needs.

Food Pantry or Cabinet

On the other hand, a food pantry or cabinet is where you would actually receive food donations. These are often in the form of a church food pantry, community center, or Salvation Army location.

Various other locations within your community may hold food pantries as well. These centers are for individuals of the public to obtain free food. Usually, you are likely to find:

  • Pre-packaged foods
  • Fresh produce
  • Dairy
  • Frozen meats
  • Bread
  • Other dry goods

It’s important to note all food pantries operate differently. Some are only open a few days a week—others, just a few times per month. 

The exact method of distribution may vary. In the past, most food pantries used to function similar to that of a grocery store. They would have shelves stocked for users to browse around and select items free of charge—though they were subject to quantity limitations.

In light of COVID, most food pantry locations are operating as drive-throughs or with pickup options. This does require a bit more preparation in advance to understand the new procedures.

Some food pantries do require advance signups or appointments, especially in light of COVID restrictions, but others do allow emergency assistance daily. With this in mind, it’s important to research in advance thoroughly so you know what to expect.

Soup Kitchen

While food pantries act as free grocery stores of donated food, soup kitchens serve hot food instead. These locations often serve hot meals to the public, with differing guidelines for use.

Tips for Success in a Food Pantry

Many people feel uncomfortable asking for help, especially in a new environment. It’s easy to understand how the thought of entering a food pantry for the first time may be daunting.

However, the anxiety associated with using local food pantries should not stop you from taking advantage of the local resources available. Consider the following tips to make the most of your food pantry experience.

Planning in Advance

One of the easiest ways to overcome these feelings is to prepare in advance. A simple Google search for a “food pantry near me” can turn up various options in your area. 

With this information, you can read through and select the best option for your situation. Not all food pantries are the same, as they do not always receive equal funding. Some may be larger than others or have different qualification rules. 

There has also been an increase in mobile food pantry options in recent years. These make it easy for rural residents to still get the help they need without traveling great distances. But, these mobile food pantry options may only visit your area on a specific basis, so it’s important to stay up-to-date.

Arrive Early

Keep in mind that food pantries are first-come, first-serve. The earlier you arrive, the better spot in line you will have.

This means you will get first dibs on highly sought-after items that are usually in limited quantities. These items vary by location but may include fresh produce, dairy, and frozen foods. Each food pantry will have its own system, but generally speaking, arriving one hour early is a good idea. 

Come Well-Prepared

Most food pantries require some documentation. This is designed to prove who you are and where you live (in some cases). 

Food pantries use documents like a photo ID and a utility bill or similar document to verify your identity and address. This is done to ensure people do not exceed weekly or monthly use limits.

If you are unsure what documentation to bring, it’s best to call the food pantry in advance. This way, you can be sure to show up with everything you need.

Try Using Multiple Food Pantries

If you are having trouble meeting all needs at one pantry, consider trying others in your area. As previously mentioned, not all food pantries are funded at the same levels. Plus, food banks may have deals with local farmers or suppliers that increase their availability in specific types of foods.

Many pantries and food banks have limits to how often you can attend. By supplementing your kitchen with food from other pantries, you can find other options and more products that may not be available in other places.

Plan Meals Based on Findings

One of the best ways to make the most of your food pantry experience is to plan meals around the food you take home from the food pantry. With this, you can save trips to the grocery store only for items you absolutely need that you were unable to find at local food pantries.

This saves time, money, and efforts—and ensures you can make the most of your food pantry findings.

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask

While asking for help is never easy, it can be beneficial to check-in with the food pantry volunteers. They may have additional items such as toiletries to supplement grocery options.

They may also carry extra items to accommodate dietary restrictions for your family. Not all food pantry locations will have extra items, but it never hurts to ask.

Look Into Other Resources

If you are still struggling to provide for your family, there may be additional resources available. Check with your state’s Department of Social Services office. 

From there, you can determine your eligibility for other assistance programs. This may include:

These temporary programs may be able to supplement food pantries and kitchens further. Furthermore, looking to save money in other areas can boost food security.

By bringing down bills in other categories—like your cell phone service—you can raise funds for more pressing areas. This is great for purchasing ingredients and supplies that might not be commonly found in food pantries.

Plus, taking a multi-faceted approach can help to build security in your family as the world slowly returns to some sense of normalcy.

Have Confidence When Using a Food Pantry for the First Time

For those using a food pantry for the first time, the process may feel intimidating. The good news is that there is a wealth of resources available to supplement your situation.

After familiarizing yourself with each respective location’s rules and requirements, you will be able to narrow down the best options for your family. 

In addition to food pantries, you may be able to save money on your cell phone bill. Our free wireless service with the Lifeline Government Benefit program could benefit you and your family. Apply for Lifeline today!