HARROW — The Harrow Community Pantry has come up with a novel way of removing any stigma attached to using a food bank.
First, don’t call it a food bank and secondly, make the pantry located at the Harrow arena open to everyone. If a mother needs milk to make formula and the grocery store is closed, she’s got a place to go. It’s the same for someone who is between paycheques, is short on cash and needs to put food on the table.
“It’s for everyone,” said pantry board member Taylor Gorick. “If you need eggs late at night, go grab a carton of eggs, if you need pasta to feed you family, go grab some pasta. It’s not just for people in need because we wanted to reduce that stigma of feeling self-conscious about accessing it.”
The pantry has an open-door policy with no locks and is normally a 24-hour-a-day operation. With the COVID lockdown the hours have been reduced to weekdays from 7 to 8 p.m. and weekends from 1 to 2 p.m. There is no staff and everything is based on an honour system.
It has been open since Oct. 11 and so far there has been no damage, no vandalism and no cases of people taking more food than they need. Between 10 and 20 people use the pantry each day.
The pantry is the brainchild of Gorick and her husband Steve Pomerleau and evolved from work the couple did last year supplying food baskets for the homeless and hungry in Windsor.
“We wanted to do something more sustainable this year so we ended up coming up with the idea of a pantry inspired by the Little Free Libraries you see around town where people leave books and people read them,” Gorick said.So, Project Hope was formed.
Pomerleau, a table maker, made use of his various contacts, and Fortis Group, a large construction company, built the pantry building.The pantry is painted in the school colours of Harrow District High School and is a tip of the hat to a group of retired teachers, the Harrow Hawks Alumni Association, which was the largest donor of funds to get the pantry started. Local businessman Larry Pollard, who also had close connections to the now closed high school, was also a major donor.
“And the blue also goes with the colour already on the arena,” Gorick added.
There are cameras in the pantry which activate an app that alerts the phones of the four board members — Gorick, Pomerleau, Teri Gorick, Taylor’s mother, and Catie Hildenbrand — that somebody is inside the pantry.
Other than someone forgetting to close the door, there have been no incidents of damage or people being excessive in what they take.
Gorick said inside the pantry, posted on the refrigerator, is a list of area food banks and agencies that can provide extra food assistance, like the Unemployed Help Centre, Street Help Windsor and the Bridge House in Leamington.
Mucci Foods in Kingsville also makes weekly donations of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. Harrow United Church provides extra space to store food, as well as freezer space for perishables.
Much of the food found in the pantry is provided by a straight donation or from funds raised locally that allow the board of directors to target certain staples, like eggs, milk and bread.
Town businesses have embraced the food pantry and are completing a holiday fundraising effort, 25 Days before Christmas, which holds out the possibility of a reward to those who donate.
My advice to any community looking to do this is you have to have a core group of volunteers that are extremely dedicated to the project.
A draw will be held Christmas Day and winners will be given gifts donated by local businesses.
“It’s been astounding, from donations of food to companies operating their own food drives and then donating the food to us, or financial contributions. It’s really been inspiring,” Hildenbrand said.
The pantry has received donations from Kingsville, the Town of Essex and Windsor.
“We really get the sense that the whole region is embracing the idea of the pantry and what we are doing,” Hildenbrand said.
She said the board has received inquiries from other Essex County municipalities about starting their own pantries. She said she and other board members are more than willing to give advice.
Essex Coun. Sherry Bondy, whose ward includes Harrow, said running a pantry requires commitment and, most importantly, time.
“My advice to any community looking to do this is you have to have a core group of volunteers that are extremely dedicated to the project. The Project Hope team are there three, four times, sometime more times a day, cleaning, stocking shelves, sanitizing, checking for donations. It’s a lot of work,” she said.
Bondy said she supports the spread of new pantries elsewhere in the county.
“I think it would be ideal for the idea to spread because the more there are, the more sustainable it will be. Project Hope is used immensely throughout the county. And so, it would be more accessible for other regions if it was in other communities.”