04/28/2012 07:40 pm ET Updated Jun 28, 2012

Mobile Food Pantries Bring Fresh Produce to Neglected Communities

A late snow was falling, and temperatures had sliced down to the 30s from a March that had seen 80. The truck from Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank pulled into Coopersville, Mich., at 9:30 on that April morning to set up the town's monthly mobile food pantry. A crowd of volunteers -- half a dozen retirees and 10 students from the local high school -- stood in the parking lot of Church of the Savior RCA as driver Andy Bloos hopped out and began opening the trailer doors of the modified beverage truck.

The volunteers unloaded the food onto two lines of makeshift tables on either side of the truck: grapefruit, soup crackers, bosc pears, bags of French bread, organic milk, purple-skinned potatoes and birthday cakes.

Bloos praised the local organizers of the mobile pantry, Coopersville Cares: "They each have their own system," he said of the food bank's partner agencies. "This is one of the ones where I just step back and stay out of the way."

Facing the truck, a line of hand trolleys and laundry baskets stretched across the asphalt -- the morning's shopping carts. Those who had brought them sat in their vehicles to keep warm. A few minutes before 10, they got out to claim their places.

Many were seniors, some were mothers with young children in tow, a few were disabled. As they filed along the tables, no one forced them to take items they didn't want or couldn't use. They had their pick, no questions asked. The grapefruit and French bread were especially popular; the purple-skinned potatoes, less so.

The mobile pantry is a model for hunger-relief created by John Arnold at Feeding America West Michigan in 1998. By the time of his death this March, Arnold had spent 28 years in food banking and overseen the distribution of 321 million pounds of food. The mobile pantry is one of his strongest legacies. Currently, 129 Feeding America food banks have adopted this model as a compliment to their more traditional forms of distribution through food pantries and shelters.

Arnold created the mobile pantry as a way to address a shortcoming of traditional pantries. Many are open only once a week or once a month, and the majority operate in facilities without the industrial refrigerators needed to store produce long enough for clients to access it. In urban and rural areas, gas stations are often the closest thing to grocery stores. Even where grocery stores are accessible, high-fat, high-sodium foods are cheaper than produce. All of this makes fresh food hard to come by for people in need. Mobile pantries provide an injection of fresh fruit, vegetables and dairy that punctures these barriers of cost and infrastructure.

Cindy, one of the clients in Coopersville that morning, was once employed by a food pantry before she required assistance herself. When a debilitating surgery and cuts to her husband's hours constricted Cindy's income, the mobile pantry served as a bridge between paychecks.

"I'm an inventive cook," she said. "People ask, what am I gonna do with four pounds of onions? I say freeze 'em. Seven pounds of bananas -- peel 'em, freeze 'em. You make banana bread."
Cindy praised Feeding America West Michigan's efforts to rescue excess crop from area farms, and she applauded the lack of waste in the system. Last year, she said, leftover watermelons were given to the high school football team and bruised apples fed a local farmer's pigs. "None of it -- none of it -- gets wasted," she said.

Restoring dignity and reducing waste were two tenets of Arnold's core philosophy of client choice. He was adamantly opposed to demanding proof of income and to handing out boxes of food packed according to a committee's idea of health. Often the items in those boxes -- powdered milk, dried beans, tuna fish -- were far removed from what clients were familiar with or knew how to cook. "Bomb shelter food," is the term Arnold used. Much of it was thrown away.

By taking clients at their word and allowing them to choose from an array of truly healthy foods, Arnold ushered in a new era of food banking, one that is more efficient, more nourishing, and more responsive to those it serves.

Driving his truck back to the food bank in Comstock Park, Bloos talked about how dissatisfaction with his previous job as a machinist led him to his current position. "I make half of what I made at my last job," he said, "almost exactly half. But every day I went to work there, I questioned, what difference am I making?"

By driving a reincarnated beverage truck around Michigan, Bloos and the rest of the food bank's staff ensure that those in need don't have to settle for fatty, heavily processed foods and that they don't have to choose between heating their homes or feeding their families -- even when it snows in April.