Patrons of meals pantry will be capable of store on-line

Rita Price The Columbus Dispatch

The next time Jacqueline Davis needs help from her neighborhood Lutheran Social Services food pantry, she won‘t be driving to a West Side storefront or strolling wide aisles with a cart. She‘ll type a shopper ID and PIN number into her phone and order online.

“It sounds pretty easy,” Davis, 43, said last week as she received a short tutorial on the new system. “I‘ve got kids, so I do online shopping and chatting anyway.”

The LSS Westside Pantry, which served about 8,500 households in the past year, closes on Friday. The agency is transitioning its five storefront pantries in central and southeastern Ohio to an online ordering and mobile distribution model. The Champion Avenue food pantry, a longtime presence on the South Side, is scheduled to close April 6.

The changes are likely to ripple widely: Lutheran Social Services operates the state‘s largest food-pantry system, and administrators say the digital shift is a first for Ohio and likely the nation, too.

“It‘s a big change, and it will take a lot to get used to,” said Jennifer Hamilton, a Lutheran Social Services spokeswoman. “No one else is doing anything like this.”

Reaction since the announcement last fall — LSS hadn‘t settled on the bricks-and-mortar closure dates then — has been largely positive, she said.

“Of course, there‘s some trepidation. But I think that once we‘ve been able to spend some time walking people through the system, a little bit of that angst has kind of dissipated,” Hamilton said.

Starting Monday, (Feb. 12)clients of the Westside Pantry will be able to order online for pickup the following week. Those without internet access or who aren‘t comfortable using an online model can call and shop by phone.

After orders are placed, the agency will deliver the food to one of multiple pickup sites where clients receive their pre-orders and then choose their perishable foods: fruits, vegetables and meats. In the Columbus area, city recreation centers are serving as pickup-and-produce locations.

“People will still be getting the same amount of food,” Hamilton said. “And they still can choose what they want.”

All but one of the agency‘s pantry employees chose to take a position in the new system, she said. Most volunteers also are expected to stay on, primarily at the pickup sites.

“We try to keep the core together,” said Josiah Sapp, manager of the Westside Pantry. “It‘s good to see those familiar faces.”

Lutheran Social Services has been renting that Westside storefront; it expects to sell the Champion Avenue property. The agency says the cost savings should allow it to serve even more needy families.

Volunteer Norm Nelson hopes so, but worries whether elderly, mentally ill or homeless pantry clients will be able to manage online or telephone ordering. And he wonders whether the pickup sites will afford sufficient social interaction for those who are isolated and lonely.

“I just think it‘s kind of sad,” he said.

Priscilla, a 71-year-old from Hilliard, said she and her husband are “going to give it a shot.” Priscilla didn‘t want to give her last name, saying despite their fixed incomes, she and her husband never expected to need help.

“I‘m a year out from a stroke and so is he,” she said, smiling at her husband as he helped tend pantry shelves. “We each had a stroke on the same day.”

Now, saddled with staggering medical bills and prescription costs, she said, “I understand why seniors make choices between medicine and eating.”

Priscilla figures she can manage their food orders from their desktop computer. Her husband, who doesn‘t like to accept without giving, will continue to volunteer as best he can.


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