Wayne County food pantry system has embraced its crucially important role

Posted 1/25/23

WAYNE COUNTY, PA — Clarissa Wimmers had just stepped into her director’s role at the Wayne County Food Pantry, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

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Wayne County food pantry system has embraced its crucially important role


WAYNE COUNTY, PA — Clarissa Wimmers had just stepped into her director’s role at the Wayne County Food Pantry, and then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. 

Three short but eventful years have begun to transform the organization, a vital part in the development of a robust local food system.

When the Wayne Tomorrow! Community Impact Network visited the Honesdale food pantry recently, Wimmers said that the first challenge was to change the language surrounding the pantry.

Now the pantry emphasizes that the program helps our friends and neighbors—people we know, not just an anonymous “them.” 

The point is to fight the stigma associated with needing the food pantry. 

Rallying the community, building infrastructure

COVID-19 created many challenges, but also presented opportunities. One challenge rallied the community to offer an emergency food relief program in just nine business days, with the help of the county commissioners, the human services agency, the school districts and many other partners and volunteers.

In partnership with the Wayne County Community Foundation, local businesses and individuals donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in support. These funds were used to purchase fresh produce, milk and eggs—helping farmers, who had been cut off from their wholesale markets by the pandemic. 

That emergency relief fund has been rebranded as the Farms to Families Fund, and continues to provide fresh local foods each month. 

But there is a good deal more to operating a pantry program than food and monetary donations. “You need the infrastructure, too,” Wimmers said, referring to equipment, volunteers and community partnerships.

One key step was organizing the warehouse in Honesdale, and a donation from the Honesdale Rotary purchased the first commercial shelving. Additional donations helped to complete the needed additional shelving, which now encompasses more than half the space.

COVID-19 also offered an opportunity to purchase two box trucks, one of which is refrigerated, to deliver the food to the four remote distribution sites in Damascus, Lakeville, Lakewood and Newfoundland. The trucks were paid for in part by a special COVID allocation through the community development block grant program.

A renewed relationship with the Second Harvest Food Bank, which historically underserved Wayne County, presented another opportunity. 

With new leadership on both sides, the two organizations forged a new, stronger working relationship, and Second Harvest donated an unused conveyor belt and the first order of boxes to help streamline Wayne County’s packing operation.

Another local organization, the Honesdale-area Jaycees, recently purchased 6,000 boxes.

Volunteers are key

At the heart of the pantry operation, however, are the volunteers. They include seniors, young professionals, students, teachers and individuals with special needs—more than 100 in all. The volunteers are the ones who greet friends, neighbors and strangers, some of whom have never had to ask for help before. 

Some of these people, new to the pantry, are so grateful that they are moved to tears.

“We just want people to know that we are here to help,” said Wimmers, “whether you need us for a little while or a lifetime.” 

She also encourages people to give back by volunteering, should they find themselves in a better position later on.

The volunteers all say they enjoy helping others, and get back a good deal more than they give to the program. 

One even said, “I had no idea retirement could be so rewarding.” 

The new equipment is a hit with the volunteers as well, with another noting that “even packing day has become more fun.”

Wimmers said the conveyor belt and boxes mean volunteers can pack more than 200 boxes in less than an hour, leaving them time to pack for a new pop-up program that provides supplemental nutrition to students and families in the Damascus and Preston Schools. Two additional locations have come on board in Honesdale and more are expected to later in the new year.

Local produce makes a difference

Another challenge-turned-opportunity stemmed from the fresh produce, which, at times, contained items unfamiliar to pantry consumers. The pantry newsletter was born, suggesting ways to prepare the items in their boxes. Distributed with the pantry goods each month, it features recipes using many of the ingredients contained in the boxes.

Sometimes people aren’t used to cooking meals, so the pantry, working with Second Harvest, the Wayne County Community Foundation and the county, offered a pilot six-week course in food preparation, meal planning and food safety. Wimmers said they learned a lot from the experience and plan to revise the program, and then try it again with a shorter time commitment.

“We are trying to meet people where they are,” she said.

Commissioner Brian Smith said the expansion of the pantry to include fresh, locally grown produce is just one element in a larger effort to support Wayne County’s agricultural industry and make it possible for farmers to grow healthy, nutritious foods and stay in business. Part of that, he said, is recognizing agriculture is a business that requires significant investment in equipment and supplies, and that farmers need to be paid for their efforts.

You can help too

You can support the Farms to Families fund through the Wayne County Community Foundation, can watch the promotional video, learn more about the pantry program online, or call 570/253-4262 to register or volunteer.

Mikki Uzupes is the community network specialist at Wayne Tomorrow!

farms to families, wayne county commission, community, food pantry


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