People toting black carts eyed what was in stock and picked out fare like spinach, eggs and turkey. It sounds like a scene from a grocery store, except it’s actually a weekly food pantry for those in need at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Encinitas.
Supermarket-style food pantries aim to cut waste, reduce any stigma associated with pantries and encourage interaction. The local pantry was an early adopter of the concept, an example of the passion and vision of Anne Heyligers, who heads the program.
“It’s a big deal to these families to have fresh food that their kids enjoy,” Heyligers said. She added it’s better than handing out pre-packed bags of food, some of which people may not need or want.
The pantry provides groceries to 60 to 80 families — primarily the food insecure and homeless — from 3-4 p.m. every Thursday at St. Andrew’s. Volunteers place food on tables, and like a mini-grocery store, there’s a section for produce, dairy, canned goods and baked items.
Heyligers began lending a hand at the pantry about nine years ago, back when volunteers distributed readymade bags that were heavy on canned goods.
“A woman told me she was grateful, but asked, ‘How many jars of peanut butter do I need?’ I thought there has to be a better way to do this.”
Not long after, due to people retiring, Heyligers stepped up to lead the program. Her first big goal was securing fresh fare, instead of relying primarily on locals’ food donations to St. Andrew’s. Today, the pantry notably receives fresh produce from the Leichtag Foundation property in Encinitas, as well as excess groceries from the store Haggen. The San Diego Food Bank is another major source of food.
And rather than pack bags of food, Heyligers realized it was a lot easier to set it out on tables. Plus, the setup is conducive toward conversation.
“Because they walk from table to table, there’s more interaction. Now after all these years, we know their names, their kids’ names and we’ve watched their kids grow up. Before it was just handing them a bag.”
She added a number of people who pick up food from the pantry or did so in the past appreciate it so much that they’ve gone on to volunteer there.
The pantry draws people from the surrounding neighborhood, and as far away as Oceanside. Many of them are veterans, homeless or families that need a little help getting by for a period.
“One family’s business went belly up,” Heyligers said. “Everyone has a story.”
Sharon Benton was among those picking up groceries for her family.
“This has been a Godsend for a lot of people,” Benton said. “It helps get through the month.” Also, Benton added being able to select her food means only having to take what she needs.
Heyligers, who grew up in New York, said her family cared a great deal about eating healthy, fresh meals together. She added everyone — regardless of their economic standing — should have the same opportunity.
“My life has been a lot about feeding people and family,” she said. But, she added, her passion for aiding those in need doesn’t necessarily come from her upbringing.
“When I first volunteered here, I realized it’s just very rewarding to make sure people are fed.”
Heyligers said occasionally bread goes stale, but very little there goes to waste. That’s a point of pride for her, especially after working in the restaurant industry years ago and seeing how much food was dumped into the garbage.
St. Andrew’s was among the early supermarket-style pantries, a concept that Heyligers said she hadn’t seen elsewhere, but just happened to arrive at. She has shared and championed the idea at county panels addressing hunger.
Her dedication to helping the community earned her a spot in “Hidden Treasures,” a soon-to-debut exhibit paying tribute to unsung heroes in the community.
Volunteers praised Heyligers and the pantry.
“She’s selfless with her time and energy,” said Alice Keller, echoing others. Keller, who organizes and arranges the produce, added Heyligers is a natural leader.
In addition to spending about 10 hours a week on the pantry, Heyligers is a full-time realtor. It’s a lot, but more than worth it, she said.
Chris Mango, a Marine Corps veteran who is homeless, said the entire operation is very generous. Mango tries to eat healthy, but said it’s really tough given his circumstances.
“Everything is good — and that’s hard to find for me,” Mango said while picking up a head of lettuce.
The food pantry’s budget is separate from the church, with all funding coming from donations. To donate money or volunteer, email Heyligers at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donations, like extra produce from the garden or canned goods, can be dropped off in front of the church, at 890 Balour Dr.