Food pantry program goes digital

One of Las Vegas’ latest food-related digital advances is a world away from the fancy restaurants on the Strip, and it’s already making a world of difference for those using it. Lutheran Social Services of Nevada recently introduced DigiMart, a new computer system that makes shopping at the agency’s food pantry more convenient — and more nutritious — for area families.

Originally created for a food pantry in Brooklyn, New York, LSSN is the only agency in the western half of the country (and one of only a few organizations across the United States) to use it, says Armena Mnatsakanyan, the agency’s CEO.

Mnatsakanyan says she was moved to look for a more efficient food pantry distribution system in part because of the inconveniences clients sometimes faced, including visits that could run two hours or more and feeling the need to line up outside in very hot or very cold weather.

“People would come to receive services many hours before we even opened,” she says. “I was very hurt as a human being to see what I was seeing. So we needed to do something.”

Her search lead her to the DigiMart system developed for St. John’s Bread & Life in Brooklyn. According to Mnatsakanyan, LSSN grants paid for $5,000 initial cost. The $1,500 annual maintenance fee will come out of the agency’s general budget.

“We have operated a supermarket-style pantry for over 10 years,” Mnatsakanyan says. Clients signed in, waited their turn to enter the pantry, pushed a cart through to select the items they wished to take, then checked out at a counter just like any other grocery store.

Derrick Felder, the agency’s facilities and nutrition manager, says some clients would spend up to two to three hours waiting their turn to shop, followed by another 30 to 40 minutes in the pantry shopping and checking out, often encountering gridlock at the freezers that hold meats, dairy and perishable items.

In contrast, the DigiMart system allows clients to shop from a computer, selecting items on a touchscreen and placing them into a virtual shopping cart. The electronic order is sent to volunteers in the pantry who assemble and bag the requested items. The client chooses produce and perishables when they arrive to pick up the order, which is then recorded to their account. This cuts clients’ actual shopping time to under 10 minutes and their waiting time to almost nothing.

The biggest difference from the old system, Felder says, is that clients can come in once a week instead of once every 30 days. “That was to allow other people the chance to experience shopping here. Now, with this system, they can come in once a week.”

Another difference: The pantry’s inventory was reconfigured to make more nutritious items cost fewer points than less-nutritious ones. That, Felder says, helps encourage healthier eating.

Margaret Coleman, who shops at the pantry for herself and her husband, appreciates the speedier shopping. And because the pantry-going experience is more like actual shopping, she says, the system offers clients “dignity, because sometimes you do feel a certain way when you have to go out for help.”

LSSN’s food pantry program is just one facet of its effort to feed the area’s hungry. Felder says the pantry serves 500 to 600 families a month, and also makes available emergency food baskets to clients who have missed a pantry distribution.

The agency also conducts periodic open-air market events with nonprofit partners where fruits and vegetables are distributed to residents of targeted communities. More than 22,000 pounds of food was distributed to 750 families and individuals at a recent event, he says.

Even with the advantages that the DigiMart system offers, “the goal of any pantry is to go out of business. That means we’re feeding the hungry,” Felder says. “Unfortunately, it’s a recurring (problem) and we’re never going to beat it, but we can stand toe to toe with it.”

Read more from John Przybys at reviewjournal.com. Contact him at jprzybys@reviewjournal.com and follow @JJPrzybys on Twitter.

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