Author: Ben Prez

The North County Food Pantry has always been more than just an opportunity for free groceries. Located in Elk, WA about 30 miles north of downtown Spokane, the North County Food Pantry opens its doors every Monday from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. and Wednesday from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m.

Individuals who utilize the pantry can shop in a way reminiscent to a grocery store experience, selecting what items they know they will use in what is commonly called a “client choice” distribution style. Sandy Harvey, director of the pantry, refers to her clients as shoppers or guests and while she is happy to share the many positives involved in running this pantry model, she is quick to share the other reasons that make North County Food Pantry special.

“It’s all about the people who come here. We get to interact with them and hear feedback on how this food is helping,” Harvey says.

Through a weekly delivery of fresh produce, dairy, meat, canned goods and bread from Second Harvest, The North County Food Pantry is able to stock their shelves with enough variety to make a balanced selection possible for every shopper.

“Second Harvest has always been there to keep our inventory up and we know the support is there.” Harvey says.

Sandy (far right) and her husband Joe (center back) became volunteers in 2004 after Sandy retired from a career with the postal service. They stuck around through the years, eventually becoming co-directors in 2016.

Sandy and her group of about 20 dedicated volunteers worked hard to cultivate a pantry environment that offered dignity, plenty of healthy food, and a sense of community. They provide resources, connect clients to services, and even started a community garden behind the pantry. The 1-acre plot supplies between 3,000 – 5,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables each year for pantry clients.

The opportunity for choice gives shoppers a chance to pick items suited for their dietary needs, family preferences, and a sense of general dignity along with a significant decrease in wasted food.

Despite that varied client experience, Sandy always circles back to the warm, personable interaction between pantry guest and volunteers.

“We’re called the ‘gathering place’ because the community knows us and trusts us,” Sandy says. “When our numbers dipped, I started calling people and a lot of them said they weren’t coming back until they could shop again. I started the shopping style pantry a few years back and we believe in it and the people love it.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the pantry to move to a drive-up distribution style, but Sandy noticed a precipitous drop in households (as low as 10 on a Monday) paying them a visit. In June of 2021 they went back to the grocery store, “client choice”, style and Sandy says that immediately the numbers started to climb again. She believes this is partially due to swapping out the pre-built boxes in exchange for open pantry shopping again but also the warm and inviting environment provided.

“I’ve never seen a group of people as compassionate as this group of volunteers,” Harvey says. “Joe and I have been very fortunate over the years and now we get to give back.”

Feeding Eastern Washington and North Idaho

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