Gleaners to Pilot New Fresh Market Pantry Concept

Most people who shop for milk or fresh vegetables pick those things up during weekly shopping trips or on the way home from work.

That option hasn’t been available to those who rely on emergency food assistance. But a new “retail pantry” concept planned for Oakland County could change that.

Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan is developing the concept, which will look a lot like a small produce market but only be open to low-income people who qualify for emergency food assistance.

Fresh produce and dairy are top things requested by food-insecure families who don’t know where their next meal is coming from without assistance, Gleaners COO Julie Beamer said. The market pantry would provide a new model for getting more of those healthy foods to people when they need it.

“If we want to encourage consumption of healthy fresh produce, folks have to have access to it. That’s what this concept is about,” she said. Gleaners studied a similar concept in Columbus, Ohio, in developing its market pantry concept, Beamer said.

When open, it will offer fresh produce, dairy products like milk and cheese and eggs on a drop-in basis, operating five to six days each week, including Saturdays, with hours into the evening.

The concept will differ from client choice pantries Gleaners operates in Howell and through a partner in Taylor. While those locations look similar to a grocery store in their layout and allow low-income families to “shop” for the food they need, typically, clients come in monthly by appointment, Beamer said.

At the new market pantry, “customers” will be able to stop in as frequently as they need, she said, with a projected 100-150 patrons each day and annual distribution of a half-million pounds of produce and dairy from the location.

Gleaners’ early estimates for the pilot location are in the range of
$150,000-$250,000 the first year.

While the availability of fresh produce in Michigan and the Midwest has declined this year due to the climate (see related story on Page 3), when purchased directly from farmers, produce is one of the most cost-effective items for a food bank to purchase, vs. proteins and canned good, Beamer said.

Michigan’s emergency food market has been flooded with federal milk and cheese subsidies this year.

According to the Michigan Food Bank Council, Michigan’s emergency food network has taken in over 12 million pounds of milk and cheese this year through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Service Agency’s trade mitigation program that’s buying surplus food from farmers impacted by federal tariff policies.

Those dairy products come on top of surplus dairy donations from the Michigan Milk Producers Association, a farmer-owned co-op, and others. Those donations add up to about 150 gallons of milk and 50 pounds of cheese every day. Last year, they totaled 1.5 million pounds, according to the Food Bank Council of Michigan.

In a related move to increase access to fresh dairy and produce, Gleaners is talking with the larger partners in its existing emergency food network on ways to improve access to fresh dairy and produce, such as hosting “fresh hours” one night a week. The network includes 500 organizations, from shelters, pantries and soup kitchens to housing complexes and schools across Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Livingston and Monroe counties.

The push to get more fresh foods to those living with food insecurity is something all food banks are focused on, Beamer said, and a key pillar of Gleaners’ strategic plan.

“We are going to … continue to grow with healthy and fresh. It’s what our consumers need if we want to positively impact their health.”