Oxford food pantry hopes to expand, renew lease

Posted on Oct 26 2017 - 8:02am by Jeanne Torp

Shelves at the Pantry are stocked constantly, and are set up and operated much like a grocery store. Clients are able to look through the shelves and take whatever food they may need. Photo By Jeanne Torp

Since 1982, The Pantry has been the only food pantry in Oxford, aside from the one on campus. After nearly 20 years at its current location, The Pantry’s lease is running out, and it’s unclear if the organization will be able to renew its lease to stay in its current location on Molly Barr Road.

The Oxford Police Department is also looking to expand into the lot where The Pantry is currently located.

Since its opening, The Pantry has found its home at several different locations. More often than not, it has been located on empty lots rented out by churches.

This was the case for The Pantry’s very first location, set up in an empty building on a local Presbyterian church’s lot. It remained in this location until the church needed the building, at which point The Pantry relocated temporarily to a lot owned by another local church. 

The owner of Sunshine Mobile Homes in Alabama eventually heard about The Pantry’s dilemma and its lack of a permanent location. The company offered to build a double-wide mobile home structure to accommodate The Pantry’s needs. A lease was obtained for the organization’s current land next to the Oxford Police Department, and the mobile home was built on the land in 2001. The Pantry has been there ever since.

However, the lease obtained by The Pantry only ensured the lot for 20 years, meaning the lease will expire in 2021. The Pantry’s president, Ann Odell, and vice president, Guthrie Abbott, are now looking to extend the lease by 10 years. 

Odell said she hopes to use the time to make improvements to The Pantry. 

“We want to expand the loading dock, buy a walk-in freezer and redo the floor,” Odell said.

It is not certain whether these renovations will take place, however, as the group is unsure if it will obtain the lease extension, considering OPD’s interest in its location. While an official decision on who will get the land has not been made, The Pantry has sent a request to the city and hopes to have a decision within the year.

Even if it does not maintain its current location, those involved with the organization trusts the city to find a place for it to relocate.

“All we can do now is work with the city and see what they can make happen,” Abbott said.

The Oxford community is also holding onto the establishment. Odell said locals have been incredibly involved since The Pantry opened.

In its early days, word of The Pantry spread around Oxford through interest meetings and was brought into existence with the help of five churches in town.

Volunteers pack pastry bags for incoming clients. Photo By Jeanne Torp

“The idea came from a Memphis Commercial Appeal newspaper article about a Baptist minister starting a food pantry with his congregation for his church,” Odell said. “We thought, ‘Why not do the same thing here?’”

The Pantry’s organizers are confident it will stick around, especially because of the generosity shown by members of the Oxford community.

“The community has always been generous since the very beginning,” Odell says. “It’s just very gratifying to live in a community where the people are generous and want to help their neighbors.”

There are 16 churches involved with running The Pantry, with a different church in charge of operations every month. This month’s director is John Kohne with St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford. Volunteers from the congregation of each church come to The Pantry to take care of various chores around the establishment, such as meeting food trucks, stocking shelves and serving clients. 

“I enjoy working with the other volunteers that help us and the people that come through, the clients,” said Barbara Hoffman, a volunteer from St. John the Evangelist. “We get to visit with them at times and get to learn about them and their families.” 

There are even some trained volunteers who screen clients to help them find jobs and to see if there are any other agencies to which they can be referred. The Pantry also receives help from the university through student volunteers and the law school, as law students occasionally come by to give free legal advice to clients. The Pantry also frequently receives assistance from organizations in town, such as Panera Bread and Walmart, which both donate food to it twice a week. 

The Pantry currently serves about 70-80 families every time it is open. Each church and its volunteers work about 100 hours per week. With or without the extension of its lease, Odell said The Pantry is eager to continue its work in Oxford, helping those in need, for years to come.