Meals by Grace moved its pantry operation to Keith Bridge Road last week and officially held a first day of service at the new location on Wednesday, Feb. 10.
Stephen Daniels, president and co-founder of Meals by Grace, said that their team worked on the move for about eight weeks, culminating in the ministry purchasing and operating out of a space about four times larger than the previous pantry.
“We’ve moved the pantry before, but we had grown at the existing pantry,” Stephen said. “We had grown so much [at the previous location]. Just because the amount of food we move each week, it was very full.”
The new pantry location offers residents the chance to choose their food and shopping experience. Suellen Daniels, CEO, executive director and co-founder of Meals by Grace, said she and her team did all they could to make the new pantry feel like a “community place” for their clients.
“I mean, even children identify very early on who has and who doesn’t have, and they begin that separation of treating each other differently,” Suellen said. “We want to try to minimize that as much as we can.”
Suellen said she wanted to make sure the new space was warm and inviting instead of “the stereotypical clinical and all-business” feel that some food pantries have.
The new location features a check-in area where clients are encouraged to sit and relax and pour themselves a free cup of coffee. Because of current COVID-19 restrictions, Meals by Grace has also set up a waiting area where residents can wait to be let into the shopping room by volunteers. The waiting room includes a table and chairs along with bookshelves with activities, toys and books for children to enjoy.
Rachele Matijasich, operations manager for Meals by Grace, said they wanted a place that children could relax as well while their parents shopped, a place “for kids to just be kids.”
The shopping area includes all of Meals by Grace’s regular appliances but is more spread out. Stephen said how it is nice to be able to see all the stock and not have to cram cans and boxes of food into spaces.
“Having this space is just amazing,” Rachele said. “We have been able to do food sorts, we have been able to stock our shelves, we have been able to actually see what we have. Being able to physically see all of the product in place is absolutely amazing.”
While Meals by Grace is excited by the possibilities the new, larger space has to offer, the organization is more thrilled to be able to return to their client-choice model. The client-choice model allows residents to shop at their own pace and choose the food they want for themselves and their families. It also allows them to budget on a point-based system and feel in control of purchases.
“We want to see our families more than just survive, we want them to thrive,” Suellen said. “They have to feel respected and dignified to do that.”
Suellen said she would never forget the first time Meals by Grace switched to a client-choice model.
Previously, she said Meals by Grace had operated on a kind of first-come, first-served basis, which had caused some arguments among clients that “were just awful.” Meals by Grace did not notify patrons that they had switched to a client-choice model and set up a shopping area before opening, wanting to keep the element of surprise intact for their neighbors.
“So everybody’s lined up and are going, ‘Argh, argh, move out of my way,’” Suellen said. “So we opened the door to let them come in, and I’ll never forget, it was like watching a cartoon.”
She said the first woman who stepped inside was shocked and held up the line behind her because she was in awe at all the changes that had been made.
According to Suellen, clients were used to standing outside “in the cold or the heat or whatever it was that day,” but with the changes, volunteers were able to have them sit down, relax and enjoy the experience.
When COVID-19 hit, not only did Meals by Grace lose volunteers, they lost the ability to use the client-choice model in the smaller pantry space.
Suellen said they tried to do what they could to make things “better – not great, not terrible, but a little bit better” by setting up tables outside the pantry for people to have a scaled-back shopping experience.
With the larger space, Meals by Grace is able to return to the client-choice model and re-engage in relationships with clients while still maintaining COVID-19 safety precautions.
“[The new location] is going to give us an opportunity to re-engage the client-choice model, and that’s how we want to care for our neighbors because handing them food in a box … I mean, can you imagine driving up to Kroger and they just bring stuff out and put it in your car?” Stephen said.
“The relationship [is important], I agree,” Suellen said, “Because that [client-choice] model means we re-engage the relationships. We’re able to have the volunteer shopping assistants engaging one-on-one with families again.”
The new location will also feature the food management director, also a chef, giving out free samples “just like at Costco that we all love” and making meals with recipe cards to go along with them. Suellen stated that Meals by Grace wants to “normalize the shopping experience as much as possible,” and having free samples and recipe cards will help do just that.
In the future, the location will also be the home of the Cumming Harvest Farmer’s Market, where neighbors can pick out fresh produce for themselves and their families. Meals by Grace also owns an aquaponics farm that will be able to provide there as well.
Between all of their ventures in Forsyth and Dawson counties, Meals by Grace will be able to operate and serve their neighbors from the same space. People will be able to take advantage of the client-choice model and choose their meals freely without worrying about COVID-19 space restrictions.
“Bringing back the dignity of being able to shop for yourself is so, so important,” Rachele said. “And that’s what we’re here to do in this new space.”
Meals by Grace is at 3540 Keith Bridge Road, behind Hollywood Feed. For more information, visit mealsbygrace.org.