A new pantry choice in Pittsburgh

By Hugo Bravo

Captains Justin and Evelyn Caldwell arrived at the Salvation Army Pittsburgh Temple Corps in the middle of the pandemic. By then, the corps’ food pantry had moved to a ‘pickup and go format’, with people receiving their food bags in their car to limit close contact with others.

“Before COVID-19, our food donations were from smaller, local stores. Now, they were coming from large places like Whole Foods and Fresh Market,” says Captain Justin. “With those new connections, we had so much food for people in need. At the same time, we were hearing about other corps doing choice pantries, where instead of receiving a bag of groceries, people who came to The Salvation Army could personally pick and decide what food is best for their or their family’s needs.” The Caldwells liked this idea and decided to put it forward.

First, they would need the proper space, something that not all Salvation Army churches had. Fortunately, Pittsburgh Temple’s fellowship room was large enough for the vision that they had. The room’s carpet was removed and, in its place, went solid, hardwood floors. “Carpeted floors for fresh food and produce just wasn’t going to work,” remembers Captain Justin.

When the floor was set, long metal shelves where products could be displayed were purchased and made into aisles. This would allow one to weave through and pick out the food they want. Shopping bags and carts were also bought to better recreate the grocery store experience.

“We have volunteers coming in on Monday to start preparing everything for our pantry day on Thursdays,” says Captain Caldwell. “This requires displaying the foods on the shelves, sorting the produce, and getting the frozen meats out.”

The community was used to the old system but have come to embrace the new choice pantry. It has met a need for those who have special dietary restrictions.

“I remember one gentleman who came to us saying he could not have sugar, and bags that are given out usually have some sort of sweets or pastries,” says Captain Justin. “Whenever he got certain items, he was always looking for someone to give them to. Eventually, he had to throw away what he couldn’t eat; he felt bad about wasting food like this.”

The choice pantry even left room to create a new ministry only a few feet away. Tables, couches, and even a small stage were added to the other half of the room. Here, anyone before or after picking up their food are welcome to sit, talk, and meet with others. This creates a far more uplifting social experience than just waiting on to be given a bag of food.

Captain Justin says that the elderly population especially enjoy the coffeehouse aspect of it. Even with a choice pantry next to it, the room is still being used for its original fellowship purpose.

“From the physical changes that had to be made inside the building, to finding the volunteers to help set everything up every week, this was a very big transition for us. Starting a choice pantry was a move that only God could have made happen,” says Captain Justin.