How do drive-thru food pantries work?

Volunteer loading food into car
September 10, 2020
by Paul Morello

Over the past few months, you’ve probably heard and seen a lot about drive-thru food pantries. Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, drive-thru food pantries have become the safest, most efficient way for food banks to provide food to our struggling neighbors.  

But how do drive-thru food pantries work? What do people receive when they visit one? How are food banks keeping people safe at them? Drive on up, and let’s answer these (and more!) questions about drive-thru pantries.

Who can visit a drive-thru pantry? 

Drive-thru pantries are open to anyone who needs extra help getting food. Often, visitors do not need to provide proof of income or ID. Visitors may be asked for their zip code and the number of people in their house for record keeping information. No appointment is necessary but drive-thru pantries are typically first-come, first served so many visitors arrive early. 

Where are drive-thru pantries usually held?

Large, outdoor spaces help drive-thru pantries run smoothly. Mall parking lots or outside athletic venues are common locations. Because food banks want to make it easier for people to get assistance, drive- thru pantries are sometimes held at schools, businesses, parks or anywhere else a number of cars can safely fit. Depending on the number of visitors, drive thru pantries may need to change their location to accommodate more people.

How do drive-thru pantries actually work?

Drive-thru food pantries have a LOT going on. While not all drive-thru pantries operate in the same way, here’s how most work:

  1. Food bank staff and volunteers guide visitors to the food pickup area. Visitors pull up to the pantry in their car and are usually guided into a clearly marked queue. As people move through the pantry, staff will continue to move the cars forward to get everyone through as quickly and safely as possible.
  2. Visitors are checked in. To help keep our community safe, visitors check in verbally through their car window. At
    Volunteers loading food into cars
    Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee volunteers load food into cars at a drive-thru food pantry.
    some drive thru pantries, visitors may need to provide identifying information like household size and zip code. At others, a volunteer may simply count cars as they pass through the pantry.
  3. Food is loaded into the cars. Pre-packed bags of food, usually full of shelf-stable items like pasta, canned fruit and peanut butter, as well as fresh produce and meats are loaded by volunteers into the trunk of the car. Diapers and other household items may be available on request. In order to maintain social distancing, visitors are asked to stay in the car – all the loading is done by pantry staff. Once everything is loaded, visitors drive off and the next car is loaded! 

That’s a lot…and it’s just what happens on the day of the food pantry distribution. Beforehand, volunteers and food bank staff coordinate with the site and pack the bags of food, which are then delivered to the site and set up. And, to ensure the pantry runs smoothly, signage and directions are positioned throughout the pantry to help with traffic flow. 

How are food banks keeping people safe at drive-thru food pantries?

Drive-thru pantries are designed with the safety of visitors first. Most drive-thru pantries are entirely contactless. Many drive-thru pantries follow these safety guidelines:

  • Visitors always remain in vehicles
  •  Food is loaded into the trunk of the car or bed of the truck by volunteers and staff only
  • Visitors, volunteers, and staff who are not feeling well are asked to stay home
  •  Volunteers and staff always wear face masks and maintain proper social distancing whenever possible .
How can I help at a drive-thru food pantry?

Drive-thru pantries can’t operate without the help of volunteers. Volunteers may place items into cars, direct traffic, and register visitors. Here are a couple ways to find an opportunity near you.

  • Find your local food bank and contact them to see what volunteer shifts at drive-thru pantries they have available. 
  • Follow your food bank on social media! They’ll often post volunteer opportunities there as well. Or, if they don’t need volunteers, they’ll share what resources they DO need.
  • Spread the word. Even if you can’t volunteer at a drive-thru pantry, you can still make a difference. If you know anyone who might need a little extra help, share the info with them or direct them to your local food bank.

These difficult times have meant many of our neighbors are turning to food banks for the first time. If you or someone you know needs help, local food banks have many options available to you, including drive-thru pantries.

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