In a move to serve residents who otherwise have difficulty accessing its services, the Franklin Food Pantry has launched a delivery service to provide assistance where its clients live and gather.
Last month, the private, nonprofit operation began a series of weekly deliveries to three rotating locations — two at the town’s Housing Authority properties and one at the Franklin Senior Center.
“One of the reasons we looked into doing a mobile pantry is that hunger can be very isolating,” said Erin Lynch, the pantry’s executive director and lone employee. “As much as possible, we want to make sure we’re reaching neighborhoods and connecting them to the resources they need.”
The Franklin pantry isn’t the only organization taking food-distribution services on the road. The Framingham-based United Way of Tri-County, which serves families in a number of area communities, has been making weekly deliveries to motels and hotels in Framingham, Natick, and Marlborough in the past year. The Greater Boston Food Bank, which provides food and guidance to service groups across the region, points to similar programs in a half-dozen other communities.
“It might be two miles to the pantry, but the mobile market is a quarter-mile down the road. It definitely breaks down the transportation barrier,” said Kendra Bird, director of distribution services and nutrition at the regional food bank. “We do have agencies that have been doing [mobile pantries] for several years, but they’re catching on. Word is spreading: You can serve a lot of people in a short amount of time.”
Franklin’s pantry is based at 43 West Central St., in the town center across from the Fire Department’s headquarters, and is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. It counts more than 600 households among its customers, most of them Franklin residents, which translates to approximately 1,500 people in a town with a population around 33,000. It distributed 186,000 pounds of food last year.
“Unfortunately, although the recession is supposedly over, many of the families that we serve have just not been able to recover,” Lynch said. “The jobs are not coming back at a rate that can meet the need.”
Despite its central location, the pantry is not always as accessible to those who most require its services. For a variety of reasons, residents may have difficulty traveling to or transferring groceries from the pantry, whether from a lack of transportation or because of physical limitations. Others don’t have child care, and find bringing their children to the pantry onerous. During the winter, icy sidewalks are a danger to all.
In assessing the best locations to make deliveries, the pantry’s organizers focused on high-density, low-income areas, with the goal of serving an additional 100 households within a year. The pantry, which is funded through donations and grants, purchased a box truck, and on the second, third, and fourth Mondays of each month, volunteers load it up with a variety of groceries and household supplies, as well as coolers and other materials to protect perishable items in transit.
Maria Weiss, one of the organization’s volunteer coordinators, said that at an initial delivery on Winter Street, the mobile pantry’s customers “were very happy to have us there, very appreciative. It’s definitely a word-of-mouth kind of thing, and people getting used to us being there.”
At each stop, families are asked to fill out a shopping list, which volunteers fill from the truck. During the first round of deliveries, families were also asked to provide a list of items they wished to receive in the following month’s delivery.
“It gives us the opportunity to bring more perishable items, or things that aren’t staple items, per se. Or it could be something like deodorant,” said Linda Sottile, until recently the pantry’s director of operations.
Sottile thinks that the mobile pantry reached at least 15 new households in its first month of operation, and increased the number of seniors it aids by 10 to 15 percent. “Our goal was to serve more of our seniors and disabled, and we’re definitely doing that,” she said.
Franklin’s pantry obtains a great deal of its materials from the Greater Boston Food Bank, and “they’ve done a lot of really great work recently to expand their services and meet the needs in their community,” Bird said. Mobile markets may serve a different need depending on the day and time they operate, and are becoming a popular way to assist people, Bird said.
The food bank runs a program specifically geared toward pantries with mobile markets, which allow them to place additional food orders. It also offers annual capacity-building matching grants to help toward the purchase of a distribution truck, for instance.
“It’s a good option’’ if a pantry is looking for help with its expansion effort, Bird said.
The food bank has a transfer facility at the United Way of Tri-County building in Framingham to serve pantries in area communities. Jen Maseda, the organization’s senior vice president, pointed to the importance of hunger-relief partnerships in meeting a somewhat unprecedented need in the area.
“It’s very different than the population, say, even three years ago,” Maseda said. “We’re seeing more and more families losing their jobs, and those able to find work are having to take jobs that are at a significant decrease in pay. These are the people we’re seeing in temporary housing situations.”
In addition to running traditional pantries in Framingham, Marlborough, and Clinton, the local United Way over the last year began transporting food to individuals temporarily living in motels and hotels in Framingham, Natick, and Marlborough, with several vehicles available for its use.
These deliveries pose different challenges than other mobile pantry efforts. Frequently, motel rooms do not have a kitchen or refrigerator, nor do the occupants have pots, pans, or other cooking equipment. As a result, the pantry tries to distribute easily prepared packaged meals, items small enough to fit in a quarter-sized refrigerator, and kitchen utensils such as can openers.
For the past couple of years, the United Way has also run a mobile market in Marlborough geared toward senior citizens.
“It’s a food desert there, with not a lot of opportunity for seniors to be able to access healthy meals,” Maseda said. Her team learned that some seniors had difficulty walking uphill to the Marlborough Community Cupboard distribution center, so they started making small deliveries to the nearby, easier-to-access senior center.
“It was so popular — we increased our numbers by at least 300 percent in the first six months,” Maseda said. The organization also began working with Meals on Wheels to transport meals to more seniors.
Maseda underscored the importance of teamwork, and of meeting underserved populations in places where there’s already a sense of security.
“We find that it’s a challenge to build trust with a population that finds themselves needing to ask for help. They have to get over the stigma of being the person in need,” she said. “We’ve got to collaborate, share resources, and go where people are most comfortable.”
As a new provider of mobile services, the Franklin pantry hopes to set an example for smaller communities.
“We’re fortunate to have a larger infrastructure than a lot of the local towns surrounding Franklin,” Lynch said. “We’re hoping we can help them, either by bringing our mobile pantry to their area, or by helping them get their own programs going.”
The Franklin Food Pantry makes monthly deliveries at three locations in town.
► Franklin Housing Authority, 1000 Central Park Terrace, second Monday of the month, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m., serving residents of the public housing properties at Central Park Terrace and North Park, East Park, and West Park streets.
► Franklin Senior Center, 10 Daniel McCahill St., fourth Monday of the month, 2:30 to 3:30 p.m.
Rachel Lebeaux can be reached at email@example.com.