The Hunger Network of Greater Cleveland opened a grocery store-style food pantry in July to provide access to healthy food and personal items for residents in need.
For many Clevelanders, Thanksgiving marks the start of a season celebrating food, family and giving. Yet for many others, the stress of food insecurity can get in the way of enjoying the holidays.
Hunger Network created MidTown Market to provide a solution year-round. Opened in July, the grocery store-style pantry offers residents access to healthy, nutritious foods and personal care items. The market is part of a national movement that allows clients to select what they want, rather than providing a box of items selected by someone else and that the recipients might be allergic to or don’t know how to prepare.
Julie Johnson, CEO of Hunger Network, says the operation also increases their distribution footprint in downtown and Eastside communities.
“We know so many people have transportation and time barriers,” said Johnson. “Rather than having them go to one centralized location for our distribution, we go into neighborhoods, closer to their home.”
Located along the Regional Transit Authority’s HealthLine, the market borders Ward 5, which includes the Central, Kinsman and Midtown neighborhoods and parts of downtown and Slavic Village, and Ward 7, which includes the Asia Town, Hough and St. Clair-Superior neighborhoods.
Residents can pre-order groceries online to be picked up curbside through SmartChoice, a digital food pantry order system. In store, the system also helps bridge language gaps. Volunteers can use a tablet to show clients available items and to help them make selections.
The pantry’s products are ranked by a color-based nutrition value system known as SWAP (Supporting Wellness At Pantries), which shows shoppers the amount of saturated fats, sodium and sugar in each food. Shelves are labeled green (choose often), yellow (choose sometimes) or red (choose rarely) to suggest healthy items while respecting freedom of choice.
“We try to keep it as similar to the grocery shop experience, where they’re allowed to choose what it is they want to eat no matter how healthy or unhealthy it may be,” said Liz Eaton, Food and Systems Specialist of Hunger Network and Pantry Manager.
Every item in the market is also assigned a point value. Most products are one point, but foods such as whole chickens or popular staples such as milk, bread and eggs are two to four points.
Every family who enters the market is given an account that manages the point system, which is based on the number of members in the family and their ages. At the start of the month, families have 80 points to shop for items. Families with young children or infants often get more points based on certain needs such as diapers and wipes.
Kimberly Fleshman, a volunteer at MidTown Market, recognizes the importance of this point system, especially when it comes to purchasing items throughout the month.
“At the end of the month, when families are really struggling, a market like this that allows people to come and get what they need based on their situation is so valuable,” said Fleshman. “There’s no shame and volunteers help you through every experience.”
Fleshman and her husband, Kimbert, began volunteering at the market in September after stumbling upon the organization one early morning in need of a warm meal. Since the pandemic, the couple has faced a number of challenges, including finding stable housing.
With the rising costs in utilities, rent and other household expenses, the Fleshman’s have been left with no money to purchase groceries. The market has been an access point for them to find free food and products that fit with their lifestyle.
“[The Hunger Network] didn’t turn us away when I needed it,” said Fleshman.
Since the market’s launch this summer, the inventory has expanded to include culturally relevant food items, such as collards, onions and cabbage. Next year, the organization plans to unroll a service through the Hunger Network’s Food Rescue Hero App that will provide grocery delivery for homebound individuals.
“There’s just something unique and special about the work and communities we serve,” said Eaton. “We are always looking for ways to build and expand our mission to support the ongoing issue to end food insecurity in Northeast Ohio.”
Want to shop? Shopping times for the market are every other Monday in the evening from 4-7 p.m. and every other Saturday morning from 9 a.m.-noon.
Want to volunteer? If you are interested in volunteering at Hunger Network, you can call or visit their website at hungernetwork.org. If you’d like to help deliver groceries, download the Food Rescue Hero app to apply.