Under a large canvas sign proclaiming “Free Food Friday” sat piled crates of bread and bagels, milk and yogurt, green peppers and zucchini and a lone box of miniature cupcakes.
The zucchini was the first to go. The rest of the produce, dairy and loaves of French bread soon followed. The food was left over from a week’s stock at the Jackson Cupboard.
Housed in the basement of St. John’s Episcopal Church, the food bank helps feed more than 60 people each week but is often left with perishable food that won’t last until the store opens the following Monday.
To avoid dumping it in a landfill, two or three years ago the organization conceived the idea of Free Food Friday. Any perishable food not taken by the store’s weekday users goes on a table near the back of Browse ’N Buy at 10 every Friday morning. Anyone can take it home.
“That’s why we love Free Food Friday,” said Rachel Daluge, operations director at the cupboard, “because someone can grab a loaf of bread or gallon of milk and just get on with their day.”
A half-dozen people converged on the table last Friday not long after the food was set out. Single or coupled, young or old, bearing tote bags or bike racks or the undercarriages of baby strollers, attendees took their pick of the supplies and chipped away at a small mountain of food that would otherwise go to waste. Food left over after Free Food Fridays is sent to a pig farm in Idaho.
Cathy Poindexter, one of the founding volunteers of the cupboard, said some people hesitate to take the food because they feel they are taking away from someone who needs it. But even after serving all its clients, the organization is left with hundreds to thousands of pounds of perishable food.
“Our goal right now is to make sure this all stays out of a landfill,” Poindexter said. “I want someone in a Mercedes Benz to come by and pick up a gallon of milk just to help us keep it out of a landfill.”
During the week the Jackson Cupboard hosts open store hours to fulfill its primary mission of feeding community members in need.
Unlike larger urban food banks, which typically hand out preselected bags of food, the Jackson Cupboard is set up like a grocery store, except there’s no paying at checkout.
“We’re a choice pantry, so people can shop like a regular grocery store,” Daluge said. “We let people shop as they will because it gives them a sense of dignity and reduces the amount of waste.”
During open hours on a typical weekday the small basement room quickly fills with shoppers. Reusable shopping bags in hand, they check in with a volunteer and make a circuit of the room, picking what they need from floor-to-ceiling shelves of cereal, condiments, coffee and tea, spaghetti and canned goods. Next to a table piled with crates of produce, a bank of refrigerators and freezers holds meat and dairy.
Anyone can use the full store three times, then they need a referral from a social services agency in the valley, like One22 or the Jackson Hole Community Counseling Center. Still, the stigma of using a food bank can prevent some people from getting the help they need.
“Nobody should feel embarrassed or ashamed to come to a food cupboard. If anyone is in a position where they can’t put food on the table, they should come to us,” Daluge said.
The Jackson Cupboard stocks its shelves from a variety of sources: donations of food or money from individuals, food from its sister organization, Hole Food Rescue, surplus perishables from supermarkets and discounted bulk from the co-op Food Bank of the Rockies. The cupboard has grown since it opened in 2001. Now it takes a team of more than 50 volunteers each week to run the operation — restocking, taking inventory and manning the store, administration aside.
“I’ve worked here for years, and I still get tears in my eyes, people saying great things, like ‘The food cupboard literally saved my life.’ It’s very rewarding work,” Poindexter said.
Each Monday the need for donations resets and volunteers are out in force to feed those in need and ensure no food goes to waste.