West Suburban Community Pantry introduces shopping model to enhance experience

More than 40 volunteers and staff gathered at West Suburban Community Pantry during the weekend of Jan. 12 to help the pantry set up for its switch to client-choice shopping.

Over three days, they worked together to move product, remove shelving, create a labeling system and clean the pantry to prepare for a new phase in the organization's history.

"We're widening the aisles to make it more like a grocery store," says Joe Jobst, the pantry supervisor. "Clients will be able to choose what they like."

Clients who visit the pantry in Woodridge will now walk the aisles with a personal volunteer and choose the items they know and like, a trend that is growing among food pantries across the nation. A color-coded labeling system for small, medium and large families ensures that households receive the amount of food they need.

"Through this experience, we can foster closer relationships with clients and learn more about what they want," says Executive Director Laura Traut-Coyle. "There is so much research out there to support the client-choice shopping model."

Transitioning to shopping

The transition started more than a year ago as the West Suburban Community Pantry realized that other pantries in the area were also moving to shopping.

Formally known as "client choice," the model implements a grocery store feel to enhance the pantry experience and to make food pantries less intimidating for clients. As its name implies, it offers clients more choices than traditional food boxes, which in turn can boost their self-esteem in situations that may be hurting it.

"That little, seemingly simple act of picking an item off a shelf reminds you that you are capable of making choices for you and your family," says Executive Director Laura Traut-Coyle. "Shopping is better for our clients' dignity and confidence."

The West Suburban Community Pantry tested the model to get client feedback, which showed that clients overwhelmingly preferred the shopping model. Knowing that clients enjoyed shopping, staff got to work figuring out the best approach for the pantry.

Over six months, staff met with other local pantries that had already made the switch to shopping to learn best practices. They asked volunteers, who are on the frontlines of helping our clients at every distribution, what would work best. From there, Joe presented a plan of action to staff and volunteers to prepare for the change.

Even once the aisles were moved around and product restocked, staff and volunteers spent a week educating clients on exactly what was going to happen.

"We wanted clients to walk through the aisles and see what was going to happen," says Volunteer Coordinator Denice Kraft. "That way, they won't be overwhelmed or confused when the switch actually happens."

Joe and Denice explained the new system to the intake team that works directly with clients, registering them and understanding the other needs they might have aside from food. For more than a week, Joe started each shift greeting clients and warming them up to the changes, explaining how the new model would improve their experience.

"We talked to a few clients, and two of the six like the pantry how it is," he says at a staff meeting one morning. "Four of the six are excited for the switch."

Putting it into action

Eight clients waited on Tuesday afternoon on Jan. 23, excited to experience the Community Pantry's new model. Volunteers stood ready with shopping carts to assist. Laura stood at the main entrance to the pantry floor, greeting clients with a brand new, eco-friendly shopping bag displaying the West Suburban Community Pantry's fresh and colorful new logo.

Throughout the afternoon, clients wove in and out of aisles with their volunteers, selecting the meats, dairy products and canned goods that they needed.

Clients expressed their love of the new system - which also allows those with limited mobility to "place" an order during the intake process - especially the choice to take only what they need.

"I love it," one of our clients said. "Before, with the tables, you felt a little rushed and like you had to take everything. Now, you can just take what you need."

Weija Chang, an area specialist with Northern Illinois Food Bank, says that the client-choice model does eliminate food waste in addition to providing clients with a more familiar shopping experience. It also allows pantries to operate more efficiently.

"When pantry guests shop for themselves, the pantry is able to have better inventory control," she says. "This lessens the guesswork around stocking the shelves and leads to less food waste, making the entire system more efficient and effective in solving hunger."

A fresh approach for WSCP

Creating a grocery store experience is part of a wider strategy by the West Suburban Community Pantry to focus on its nutritional and holistic approach to food insecurity and poverty in DuPage and Will counties. The Community Pantry has also introduced a new logo to highlight the core food service it provides and to showcase the fresh foods available at the Community Pantry.

"All of the changes made really started with the people we serve in mind," says Laura. "We know that the more we can do to provide our clients with a dignified experience, the more likely they are to get back on their feet quickly. Our goal is to provide a positive and hopeful encounter for everyone who comes in contact with West Suburban Community Pantry."

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