By Deborah Lynn Blumberg
When a resident approached Randall City Manager Matt Pantzke about offering a food pantry to the community, Pantzke thought it would be a great way to help community members who were struggling through the pandemic.
The idea for the pantry came from Randall resident Robin Feustel, who had seen one in a neighboring community and wanted to replicate it for her small town of 629 residents. But with her busy schedule as a hospital administrator, the idea fell to the wayside.
Then the pandemic hit, and Feustel noticed community members were losing their jobs. Many people, she figured, could use the help a food pantry would provide.
Feustel Family Builds Self-Serve Pantry
So Feustel and her husband dismantled an unused deck on their camper and built a simple, freestanding wooden cabinet that could serve as a community pantry. Their daughter painted the cabinet, and Feustel added the label “Community Pantry” on the front.
“It’s fancier than I ever expected it to be,” says Feustel, who then asked the city for approval to place it in the community.
Pantzke immediately loved the idea, and the City Council agreed. They liked the idea of a self-serve pantry as opposed to other nearby cities’ food shelves, which are staffed by volunteers. Feustel and Pantzke brainstormed locations, finally settling on a covered space outside the city’s Bingo Park community center.
“It’s a discrete location,” Pantzke says. “If somebody wants to use it, they don’t have to feel embarrassed.”
In May, Feustel and family, including her son, James, brought the cabinet to the park and stocked it with basic items, including Sloppy Joe mix, spaghetti sauce, and dried pasta. Feustel shared word of the new pantry on her Facebook page, and friends shared the post far and wide. Pantzke also mentioned the pantry in the city’s quarterly newsletter, a one-pager he sends out with utility bills.
Throughout the spring and summer, community members took it upon themselves to stock the pantry with dry goods like rice, boxed macaroni and cheese, pancake mix, and ramen noodles. Feustel and Pantzke would drop by to remove expired items and assess if more food was needed.
Businesses Contribute Funds and Donation Opportunities
Then, in the fall of 2020, the Randall Area Business Group decided to donate funds to the pantry. They gave money they hadn’t spent on the city’s annual Holly Day event, which was canceled due to COVID-19.
Randall Area Business Group member Adam Boone, owner of Boone’s Market, set up an account at his store where community members could donate money. The business group had donated $750 to the account, which soon grew to several thousand dollars. Boone’s employees used the donated funds to shop for the community pantry, keeping it stocked.
Refrigerator Added for the Winter
In December, Pantzke had a new idea. He moved one of the community center’s refrigerators behind a community center window near the food pantry. Community members could slide open the window and choose perishable foods from the fridge, including milk, eggs, and butter.
“A lot of people in the community came together to support others in need,” Boone says. “People just kept donating. It’s a great thing for the community.”
For Christmas, Boone and his staff stocked the fridge with turkeys and pies. He also regularly added hamburger meat, so residents would have at least one protein option. The grocery store fund continues to accept donations.
Cost-Free Initiative Supports Residents
For the city, the initiative was virtually cost-free. The Feustels paid for supplies to build the pantry, and little maintenance is required aside from cleaning the cabinet and removing expired food. The Feustel family continues to support the pantry as well, adding items as needed.
The city has a camera pointed on the pantry in case of vandalism. But Pantzke says there’s never been an incident and no one has watched the footage.
For other cities interested in installing a community pantry, Pantzke recommends placing it in a discrete location to help boost usage and reaching out to the local business community for support.
The fridge has been removed in warmer weather, but the dry goods pantry remains. Pantzke says it will continue indefinitely.
“It is still available, and people are hitting it up if the need is there,” he says. “We’re going to keep it.”
Deborah Lynn Blumberg is a freelance writer.