Robyn Burns’ first day of work as the first full-time Executive Director of The Salem Pantry was March 25, 2020.
“When I was hired prior to the shut down, I thought I was joining a small organization. I wasn’t yet thinking about the impact of a global pandemic,” Burns recalls.
The Salem Pantry had been around for thirty years as a volunteer-run organization, Burns explained to the Salem News during a video interview in April of 2020, when she and the rest of the world were forced to think about the pandemic.
The pantry was doing a small mobile food distribution program through pop-up sites and running a backpack program in Salem’s public schools, sending kids home with backpacks full of food.
Then the pandemic shut down schools, abruptly ending the backpack program. The pantry quickly mobilized and worked alongside the school food service department distributing food at a dozen sites around the city.
Once the schools reopened and the need for citywide food distribution faded, the pantry reached out to City Connects, and this led to a more refined collaboration that has helped inform community-wide action.
“We asked [Salem’s City Connects Program Manager] Ellen Wingard if there was a way to work with City Connects to better understand the need for food in the school community,” Burns says. “Before we were coming up with solutions without actually talking to families.
“Now there’s a lot of resource sharing between us and City Connects staff. And it’s helped us identify strategies for how our programs should grow and what strategies aren’t working as well.”
One key insight: distributing food at school works for some students. But for students who ride the bus and whose parents don’t come to school, the pantry can be more effective by distributing food at affordable housing and public housing sites.
And, in addition to school-level and district-level insights, City Connects also helps the pantry understand the food needs of specific students and families.
“Another outcome of the research that we did with the City Connects team and the district was that we actually decided to open up a pantry during the school day at the high school,” Burns says, which helps not only high school students, but also families who have children in both high school and grade school. High school students are working as interns on this project and working on ways to destigmatize food distribution.
“One byproduct of COVID,” Burns adds, addressing the challenge of destigmatizing food support, “is that so many people began relying on pantries for the first time, and more people have gotten comfortable with it. We also work with our staff and volunteers to make it as inclusive and welcoming as possible. We want people to see that this is a free food option that’s available to everybody, so that it starts to feel acceptable for anyone to participate in.”
The high school-based pantry plans to distribute student-grown produce, which could help attract people.
Burns is also using lessons learned from work with City Connects as she forges partnerships with other organizations, including the North Shore Community Development Coalition, which invests in low-income and distressed neighborhoods.
“What we’re working with them on is setting up a new brick-and-mortar pantry location,” Burns says. “We haven’t had a home base, so we’re actually going to have a proper storefront that will be open five days a week with morning and evening hours so that we’re accessible to more people.”
A key step will be conducting surveys of and focus groups with current and potential pantry users to better understand the need and the operational logistics. The goal is to open in December.
“That will change some of how we interact with the schools as well because we will be able to offer that additional resource to families.”
The overall approach is to give families multiple options: pop-up sites, food delivery, and the brick-and-mortar location.
“It’ll be a hybrid model for 2023. And continued conversations with Ellen and the City Connects staff will be a part of that.”
We’re looking forward to this continued collaboration.