Earlier this month, First Lady Jennie Gordon had the opportunity to visit the Afton Food Pantry located in Afton, Wyoming. Unlike some anti-hunger organizations, the Afton Food Pantry is relatively new to the scene; volunteer director Sierra Mitchell and her small volunteer team opened the doors to the public in September 2016. Since that time, the Afton Food Pantry has grown by leaps and bounds through innovative partnerships and sheer willpower to serve.
"Partnership has been vital for us."
Sierra Mitchell founded the Afton Food Pantry with little to no knowledge about how a food pantry actually runs. Without a background in this type of work, it soon became clear that she needed some partners, quick. She first set out to establish a relationship with Food Bank of the Rockies, which helped her and her volunteer team learn about inspections, food safety and handling, and other best practices. That was just the beginning, however; since that first partnership was forged, the Afton Food Pantry has established partnerships with the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, UW's Cent$ible Nutrition Program, and Star Shine, another local organization (more on that in a bit). Additionally, the pantry established a Board of Directors with relevant experience and big hearts for the mission to help guide its development and growth.
Star Shine participants do some of the most important work at the Afton Food Pantry: they assemble food boxes each week on Wednesday mornings ahead of the Thursday evening pickup. Because the current location of the pantry is not logistically friendly, the food is stored in one area and distributed in another—separated by a lot of stairs. The arrangement works perfectly, though, as Star Shine Director Erin Gardner has adapted the pantry to fit the needs of the participants in her program. Each has a job on food box assembly day, and it makes everyone feel good to contribute. It's truly a win-win for everyone involved.
Another unique partnership Mitchell has cemented is with the University of Wyoming. UW reached out to the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners to see if the pantry might be interested in participating in the last remaining funds of an innovative grant to grow produce with a geodome. The team couldn't say YES fast enough, and the new geodome was constructed in the summer of 2019 and is currently undergoing preparations to begin growing fresh produce that can be utilized in food boxes this year. Another valuable partnership is planned with students from Swift Creek High School, who will help manage the new geodome garden with board member and teacher Don McAdams.
"People want to eat healthy food."
In addition to the partnership with the University of Wyoming, Afton Food Pantry is one of two food pantries in the state to participate in a pilot program with the Cent$ible Nutrition Program. Lincoln County CNP coordinator Shelley Balls helps pantry users understand how to prepare food in new, exciting, yet doable ways.
The value of this partnership is reflected in regular feedback, but one specific example sticks out to Sierra Mitchell. A local rancher donated a moderate quantity of lamb to the pantry; after it was readied for pickup, no one expressed interest in actually taking it home based on the pantry's system of mixed patron choice (some items are pre-determined each week, but some fresh or frozen items like bread, fruits and vegetables, or meat can be selected at time of pickup). Shelley Balls decided the problem was simple: maybe no one actually knew how to cook lamb at home. She created a cooking demonstration to help pantry patrons understand how easy it was to incorporate it into meals like taco soup, and almost immediately the demand for the lamb increased. As Mitchell says, her team now understands the importance of introducing less common foods in a way that doesn't scare people off. And everyone can use a little inspiration about how to cook with more common healthy foods, which is why the partnership with the Cent$ible Nutrition Program is truly powerful.
Fact: strawberries, milk, cheese, and potatoes never scare anyone off, and remain the most popular items available.
"I would serve the President if he knocked on the door."
One of the keys to success of the Afton Food Pantry is Mitchell's insistence that it be a NO JUDGMENT HERE zone from the very beginning. Mitchell and her team never turn anyone away, never question the level of need an individual or family might demonstrate, and never ask prying questions that would cause individuals and families to stay away. Basic contact information is collected for each recipient in case of a food recall, but beyond that, the food the pantry provides is meant to be shared with all who request it. The pantry serves anywhere from 17-35 families per week depending on the season; some utilize it only in the difficult months of wintertime following the holidays, some use it during times of job transition, and some elderly patrons count on it to stretch their small grocery budgets over an entire week.
"The blessings come back around—our community is a gracious one."
Sierra Mitchell and all the volunteers at the Afton Food Pantry view the opportunity to serve their community as a gift and a calling. It's hard work, and has come with a steep learning curve. But knowing they've been able to prevent someone from going hungry is a tremendous reward. Mitchell believes deeply in the notion that if you see a problem, you must do something, however small, to help solve it. Her philosophy centers around the idea that you can start small, but you have to start somewhere. We couldn't agree more.
Visit the Afton Food Pantry online at www.aftonfoodpantry.com. Read more about the Afton Food Pantry's partnership with the University of Wyoming in Ag News, a publication of the University of Wyoming's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Learn more about the Cent$ible Nutrition Program at uwyocnp.org.