Positive relationships

Early years voices: How to start a community pantry

How Little Beehive in Montrose is preventing food waste and feeding their families
A photograph of Katie, an Early Years educator at Little Beehive, with the text "How to start a community pantry"
February 24, 2023
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Fife, Scotland

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October 2018

When Katie Mitchell and the Montrose team saw they had thrown away 27.8 kilograms of delicious nursery food over the course of a week, they knew something had to change. All this food waste, which had been the day’s lunch just a few hours ago, started eating at Katie.

One of the Little Beehive directors, Carol Craig, introduced the idea of a “Weigh the Waste Week”  to the Montrose Little Beehive team at a staff meeting, to show how much food was being wasted each day. And, it was Carol and Lead Practitioner, Megan Burness who were in the Little Beehive Montrose office when Katie burst in with a wonderful idea - a community pantry.

Instead of throwing away the portions of food from children’s meals, Katie wanted to make it available to parents to take home and eat. 

“I got to thinking about the cost of living crisis that everybody’s going through and how tough it is,” explains Room Leader, Katie, “We’d also talked about malnutrition as part of our Healthy Working Lives project. All those things just came together and I thought, ‘There’s something that we could do here to make a difference’.”

So the team got to work. In fact, the same day that Katie made the suggestion, Carol had ordered the fridge and the baskets for the new Community Pantry.

But how does a nursery community pantry work in practice?

I met with Katie and Megan to find out.

The big ideas

  • Work together
    The community pantry is a team effort. Although it was Katie’s idea, she needed the support of her setting’s leadership, the knowledge and time from the Little Beehive cook, and advice from the local authority to make it work. 
  • Keep it safe
    Make sure you follow local guidelines for how to store and label the food. Katie and the Little Beehive team sought help from Environmental Health to ensure the safety of the families receiving the food.
  • Give it a go
    If you have a good idea, like Katie’s community pantry, share it! It doesn’t matter if you’re a director or an apprentice - inspiration can come from anyone. Why not introduce a suggestion box in the staff room, or set time aside in meetings to discuss potential new initiatives? 

What’s a Weigh the Waste Week?

In short, you weigh all of the food that doesn't get eaten, as well as anything that’s expired and will go in the bin.After a conversation amongst the managers and directors about portion control and food budgets across the Little Beehive settings, each team were told to weigh the wasted food every lunchtime for a week and note it in a chart, alongside a photo of the food portion they’d offered the children. If one setting had more or less waste than another, they could easily compare portion sizes. The results below show in kilograms how much each room was throwing away during their Weigh the Waste week:

“It was a good way to get a snapshot across all the settings,” says Megan, “And it was a real eye-opener for how much food waste we actually had.” 

Saving and sharing leftover food

Although 27.8 kg might sound like a lot, Katie’s community pantry meant that much more food got sent home to families. 

During the same week, the team sent home:

  • Five portions of macaroni cheese 
  • Five portions of carrot & lentil soup 
  • Three portions of carrot and potato soup with some homemade bread 
  • Three portions of tomato pasta with homemade bread
  • Three portions of chicken curry 
  • One portion of vegan curry

Before the community pantry, some of that food might have been taken home by the Montrose team to eat, but would have otherwise ended up in the food waste bin.

A collection of the saved food in the community pantry, clearly labeled with ingredients and allergens

How does the community pantry work?

First, the Little Beehive team consulted their local authority’s Environmental Health department.  An inspector came out to advise how the food should be packaged, labelled, and stored so that the food could be shared safely.

After meal times, the team put the leftover meals into the packaging recommended by their environmental health officer. Next, the cook prints out the labels for the boxes with the ingredients and allergens and puts the food in the community fridge.”

And, every Friday the team find the leftover fruit, milk, and dry goods that are still fine to be eaten (but wouldn’t be by the following Monday) and add those to the baskets, next to the fridge.

“When it first started, we took the older children out to the pantry and explained it to them,” says Katie, “We told them that they can ask their parents if they want to take something home, especially if they’ve enjoyed their lunch.”

There’s also a section for families to donate to the local food bank at the community pantry. The team believe that this option to donate at the same place has helped parents become more comfortable taking the free food.

“It’s easier for the families to leave the food here, and then we go to the foodbank with the children to donate it,” explains Katie, “And it’s important to show the children that we’re helping people in need.”

In order to advertise the community pantry to parents and carers, the team post on the newsfeed on Famly when the food is ready to be collected.

“We do weekly videos for the parents from the senior room leaders, so we asked all the room leaders to let their children’s parents know about the pantry too,” says Katie, “We wanted to make sure everyone knew that they’re welcome to come and use it.”

Little Beehive now has around 4 portions of food a day that are saved and they’re always collected by the end of the day.

How to start a Community Pantry at your setting:

  1. You don’t need to do a whole Weigh the Waste Week, but having an idea of how much food is going to waste is always a good start.
  2. Once you know how much you’re wasting, but before you open your community pantry, you can start to think about how to prevent the food waste in the first place. For example, Megan and Katie’s team talked about portion control and food budgets across their settings.
  3. If you still have some food to give away each week, you can start to think about what you’ll need for your Community Pantry. For example, consider the cost of ordering an extra fridge, if you intend to store the food outside of the kitchen. Megan and the team had to look at how close radiators were to their pantry, so consider your environment carefully.
  4. Make sure you look up the guidelines about how the food has to be labelled. Little Beehive sought help from Environmental Health to make sure they were meeting all the food labelling and storage guidelines, so parents could see exactly what was in each meal.
  5. Let the families know! For example, Katie and Megan use Famly to tell parents what’s in the Community Pantry so they can come and take the food.
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A photo of katie, and Early Years educator, with a young toddler, in front of the community pantry. There is a fridge in the centre and baskets either side of it. One is labelled "Food bank donations"

How have families responded?

The community pantry is now so popular that parents are popping into the setting on the days their children don’t attend, just to collect a meal. The team have also received requests to hold a portion back until collection time, so parents can be sure to receive a meal if their child stays later at the setting. And, as parents can see on Famly that their child really enjoyed a certain meal, they’re taking portions home to freeze and give their children later on.

“We have a few families where the parents struggle to find meals that their children enjoy and will eat,” says Katie, “They’re chuffed to know that there are leftovers of a meal that their child did enjoy and that they can have it. They’re even sending grandparents in to collect a meal.”

The children in the 3-5-year-old room have been requesting the tubs for the pantry after a meal they enjoy so they can take it home to have for tea.

“When the older children leave, they’re looking at the pantry to see what they’re is to take home,” says Megan, “Sometimes they’ll pick something random like some spaghetti and say ‘Let’s take it home and make something with it.’ I think there’s more cooking happening with the children at home off the back of that.”

And Katie’s benefitted too!

“I feel like a valued member of staff,” says Katie, “People around me respect me and what I have to offer. It’s the praise and encouragement that makes me feel that I can say what’s on my mind and it be taken seriously.”

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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