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100 millionth pound of food distributed through Mobile Pantry program

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The 16-year-old program has changed hunger relief in Michigan and across the country.
Volunteers from St. Thomas the Apostle coordinate Mobile Pantries at Congress Elementary each summer.

Volunteers from St. Thomas the Apostle coordinate Mobile Pantries at Congress Elementary each summer. /Feeding America West Michigan

The Food Bank uses Mobile Pantries to bring fresh produce to high-need communities like Greenville.

The Food Bank uses Mobile Pantries to bring fresh produce to high-need communities like Greenville. /Feeding America West Michigan

Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank’s 16-year-old Mobile Food Pantry program reached a new milestone in the fight against hunger this September, distributing its 100 millionth pound of food.

Developed in 1998 by Feeding America West Michigan’s former executive director John Arnold, the Mobile Pantry model provides a way to quickly distribute perishable foods like dairy, baked goods, and fresh fruits and vegetables to people in need wherever they live. This West Michigan idea spread quickly throughout the hunger-relief community and has been adopted by food banks from San Diego, California, to Portland, Maine.

“Mobile Pantries allowed, for the first time, large amounts of perishable product to be distributed to clients. Prior to that, these foods were hard to distribute in a normal pantry environment,” said Feeding America West Michigan CEO Ken Estelle.

In 2014, the Food Bank has distributed an average of 809,000 pounds of food per month on Mobile Pantries, making it very likely that this will be the program’s biggest year yet.

Today’s Mobile Pantry trucks are loaded with 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of food and delivered to a remote site, often a church or school parking lot. The food is displayed on tables in the manner of a farmers’ market where it can be collected by neighborhood families. Because Mobile Pantry distributions can be set up almost anywhere and generally take less than two hours to complete, the model has allowed Feeding America West Michigan to increase its outreach to communities, especially in the Upper Peninsula, where food pantries and community kitchens are scarce.

The model has also given non-hunger-relief organizations a chance to get involved. The American Legion post in Rockford has hosted a Mobile pantry for five years, serving thousands of Rockford-area families.

“We don’t have the facilities” to accommodate a traditional brick-and-mortar pantry, said post commander Clyde Sinclair. “This allows us to help.”

Feeding America West Michigan’s Mobile Pantry program has grown by 42 percent from 2008 to 2013 alone. Estelle attributes that growth to three factors: the increased quality of the food available on Mobile Pantries, vehicle grants that have grown the Food Bank’s truck fleet and extensive underwriting from foundations and individuals.

Those underwriters include the Allegan County Community Foundation, Archer Daniels Midland, Berrien Community Foundation, ConAgra, Darden Foundation, Fremont Area Community Foundation, Greater Ottawa County United Way, Mercy Health Partners, Morgan Stanley, Pokagon Fund, Tripura Foundation, Upton Foundation and Walmart Foundation.

For Estelle, the program is also personal. He and his wife, Kathy, helped bring one of Feeding America West Michigan’s Mobile Pantries to their church more than 10 years ago. Volunteering at the distributions was something of an epiphany for him.

“The thing that struck me was that these people were very much like me. Any of us are maybe one or two life events away from being in a position of needing help,” he said.

“They’re not different. They’re just our friends and neighbors.”

To meet a few of the people who have benefited from Feeding America West Michigan’s Mobile Pantry program, visit

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