Decide On A Pantry Model

By the end of this step, you will be able to evaluate your space to determine the model that works best and any capacity needs you may have to make the transition.

Consider the following as you learn about different choice models.

  • Your pantry’s size. Even the smallest pantries can become choice, with some imagination and determination.
  • Is there another space in your building that might work better?
  • How do you currently store the food for the pantry? e.g.- built in shelves, locked closet, moveable shelves, no storage? Is there flexibility to change how you are currently storing food?
  • Do you share space?
  • How is your pantry set up – food set up day of distribution, food stored on shelves, food placed on tables for pantry day?
  • Are you already organizing any foods into groups of like items?

Classifications of a choice pantry

There are three main models that can be implemented. Based on your space, equipment, and the number of staff and volunteers you may find that one model works best for your pantry. Click on the tabs to learn more.



Neighbors can choose food in the same way they would at a traditional supermarket. Food is organized on shelves by food groups. Guests walk through the space and select the number of food items off the shelves according to pantry guidelines.


  • Room for shelving to be set up for neighbors to walk through and easily see food items.
  • Limited extra storage is needed as the shelves hold most, if not all, of the food.
  • If you have a small storage space but a large, shared space available during pantry days, consider using shelves on wheels. They can be rolled out of a storage closet into the larger space during pantry hours, set up like a grocery store, and then rolled away at the end of the day.


  • Enough shelving space to display the foods available.
  • A refrigerator or freezer with clear glass doors so guests can view products. If that is not an option, a list of available refrigerated and frozen foods can be posted for guests to choose from so they are not opening and closing the doors as often.
  • Baskets or grocery carts make the shopping experience easier but are not required.
  • A table or space for “check out” would be helpful as well but not required.


  • Pantry stockers to organize the pantry on days and times when the pantry is not open.
  • Day-of volunteers that will check in the neighbor, share how to navigate the pantry, provide guidelines on the amount of food needed based on family size, and check the guests out after they make their selections.

What are the best practices to making the supermarket model work?

  • Neighbors walk through the pantry alone or a volunteer or staff member can walk them through the process.
  • If a volunteer or staff member guides neighbors through the pantry, this offers a chance to talk about types of food the guest chooses. This may lead to discussion about the guest needs, how to choose nutritious foods, or how to prepare unfamiliar food.
  • Neighbors can check out and pack their food in a bag or box with the help of a volunteer or staff member. Volunteers or staff can use this check out time as a way to see if the guest has taken the right amount and type of food that they are allowed based on their family size.
  • If guests are not able to walk into the pantry, food can be organized on to shelves with wheels to be wheeled outside during pantry hours for guests to make their selections.



On the day food is distributed, items are set up on tables by food groups. This model resembles a farmer’s market. Guests walk by each table selecting the number of food items based on pantry guidelines.


  • Room for tables to be set up for guests to walk through and easily see food items.
  • Can be an indoor or outdoor model.
  • Enough space for guests to walk by each table.


  • Tables to display the available food. If possible, a table for “check out” would be helpful as well.
  • Dollies or carts to transport food from the storage room to the display area.
  • Baskets or grocery carts make the shopping experience easier but are not required.


  • Day-of volunteers to set up pantry prior to open, check neighbors in, share how to navigate the pantry, keep tables stocked, check the guests out after they make their selections, and break down pantry set up after pantry is closed.

What are the best practices to making the table model work?

  • Organize food on tables by food groups.
  • If space is an issue, you can arrange tables in a u shape to save space.
  • Volunteers or staff can manage each table to keep it stocked, can walk guests through, or just float to make sure everything is flowing smoothly. It all depends on how many volunteers you have available and the number of guests you serve each pantry day.
  • Plan to have volunteers and staff before, during, and after pantry hours to set up, supervise, clean, and take down tables.
  • Work in pairs to lift heavy cases or containers of food on to tables.
  • If outdoors, be mindful of foods that need to be refrigerated.

Inventory List

There are several varieties of list models, we will learn about two of the common types that create the best choice experience. With either list model, neighbors select food from the list.

Online ordering system

  • If on a limited budget, a food pantry can set up an ordering form online. Microsoft or Google Forms are the most commonly used programs.
  • Other pantries have been able to purchase systems like the SmartChoice food pantry software. For this program the pantry would scan all of the food to create an electronic inventory list, which is why it is a type of list model. Each neighbor has a log-in to use for placing orders.
  • Due to internet and technology barriers, neighbors may not be able to place orders online. It is best to have a secondary plan in place to assist those neighbors on site or over the phone.

Inventory list

  • An inventory list of current food items which can be printed and given to the neighbor to make their selections based on pantry guidelines or can be reviewed with a volunteer or staff member to make their selections. This method can be done in person or in a drive through. The list can also be posted on a bulletin board or online.
  • For both list models, the food is stored in a storage area separate from the waiting area. Once the food selection is made, a volunteer or staff member assembles the food bags in the food storage area and brings it to the guest.


  • Enough space to store and bag food when guests place their orders.


  • Microsoft Excel to create and manage the inventory list or an online shopping/inventory program.
  • Printer/copier to have handouts of inventory list.
  • Clip boards
  • Pens or pencils


  • Volunteers or staff to manage the inventory in Excel or the designated computer program.
  • Intake to guide guests in using the list or computer to make their selections.
  • Pantry baggers and stockers.

What are the best practices to making the inventory list model work?

  • Use pictures of the specific items in the inventory, including the nutrition label for those neighbors who need to check sodium, sugar, etc.
  • Update the list as frequently as your inventory changes.
  • For pantries that are still interested in a drive-through distribution:
    • If possible, put the current food inventory list online for viewing or opt to use an online ordering system. Then your pantry could:
      • Implement a call ahead or email ordering system. Neighbors could access the online food list and schedule a pickup time with their order.
      • If neighbors use an online ordering system, they can also schedule their pick-ups.
    • If online ordering is not possible:
      • Consider what easy food items could be offered as choice in a drive-through method.
      • Print the food list prior to a drive-through distribution.
      • Give it to guests as they pull up, allow them to review it and make their selections.
      • The guests can put in the request, and the volunteer can pack it up right then.
      • It may not be feasible to allow choice for all items. Selecting a few food items to be choice can still give the neighbor the dignity to choose the foods they need and can eat.
Food Pantry who utilizes online ordering

That is a lot of information to remember! Here is a printable overview for each choice type:

Choice Model Overview

When you’re done, remember to click “Next Lesson”!

Scroll to Top