It’s just like a neighborhood market.
Canned tuna, soup, spaghetti sauce and baked beans fill shelves in 1,200 square feet of space. Bread, flour, rice, potatoes and onions wait patiently next to humming refrigerators stocked with meat, milk and eggs. There’s even deodorant, soap, toothpaste and toilet paper.
Just before 3 p.m., people will be lining up to shop. And they’ll get to leave, loaded with what they need, without paying a penny.
The Full Circle People’s Pantry has been open for business for six months, and in that time, business has more than tripled, said Bill and Barbara Packard, who joined forces with Sandra Berry to open the store that offers free food to those in need.
“We had no idea how bad the need was until after we opened,” Bill said.
The Packards, who’ve rolled up their sleeves for decades to buttress Flagstaff’s charity network, run Full Circle Charities. Berry, the pantry manager and no newcomer to charity work herself, approached the duo with an idea she’s long held to fill a gap in service she perceived.
The area food banks distribute food boxes once a month; the pantry allows people to come once a week. The food banks distribute a uniform box filled with whatever items are available; the pantry allows people to pick what they want. The food banks are often open hours when people are at work; the pantry is open later in the day and on weekends so people can drop by after their daily responsibilities.
The result, Bill said, is less waste and a more effective means to help people who are struggling to make ends meet start emerging into a more self-sufficient lifestyle.
People who wish to use the pantry fill out an application and become a member. Each member is allowed 15 pounds of food a week. Bill said that the pantry is currently up to 1,500 members. He added that, in the beginning, about 20 to 25 people would use the pantry a day. That number has blossomed to 80 and more a day. Volunteers work to keep the shelves stocked with the reserves in the back of the store.
According to numbers kept by the pantry, in November alone, more than 2,300 adults and 1,160 children were helped. More than 26,000 pounds of food was distributed at a cost of 28 cents a pound. More than 70 percent of the food disbursed (18,500 pounds) was donated.
The weekly rotation is key, Barbara said.
“People know what they need for the week,” she said. “They’re really learning now to plan.”
Bill added that he often hears from the members how the pantry has allowed them, finally, to catch up on that electricity bill, or to make that rent payment on time.
When the store first opened, Bill said that he would often worry whether the pantry would have enough food for a day, or a week. To keep the shelves stocked, they approach local businesses and churches, and they distribute donation bags in neighborhoods throughout the city. They even travel to other cities in the state to pick up food to distribute through the pantry. They’ve been blessed, they said, to have a number of regular benefactors. They also purchase food, especially perishable items, which the members appreciate.
“But there’s definitely food out there that doesn’t need to be bought,” Bill said.
The current worry for Bill is keeping the pantry stocked during the “lean” months of winter. Donations will be even more important during those times.
Currently, the line to wait to get into the store at 3 p.m. has diminished somewhat because people know that food will still be there at 6 p.m., Barbara said. Five members are allowed in the store at a time to keep the pace manageable. There has also been a growing comfort among the members that the pantry isn’t going away.
By 7 p.m., the shelves are mighty thin, and preparation begins for the next day.
The numbers, Bill said, speak for themselves of the need in the community. Also, it is a sign of a community that cares. The six-member staff who work each day is all volunteer. Nobody is paid. Rent for the space is taken care of. Every dollar and donation that goes in helps a person in need.
Barb added, “This, to us, is the answer.”
How long will they keep going?
“We’ll do it as long as Flagstaff supports us,” Bill said.