CHARLOTTE, N.C. — On a Thursday morning, the Loaves and Fishes warehouse is bustling with volunteers loading up boxes of groceries.
Vicki Shulstad is one of them. It's been about two years since she started driving for the food pantry, delivering items to the doorsteps of those in need.
"It's just a blessing to be able to take food to them and provide for them any way we can," Shulstad said. "These people, a lot of them can't leave home, a lot of them are elderly and sick... People that have children, you'll see the children will come out sometimes to help take the boxes in."
But home delivery is a relatively new feature for the organization, which has always prided itself on letting customers come to Loaves pantries, peruse the aisles of food and shop their own orders with dignity.
Danielle Moore, Loaves and Fishes COO, said the pantry pivoted to contactless drop-off in April 2020 amid COVID-19 concerns for clients and volunteers, removing some elements of self-shopping from the experience.
Moore said they always knew they needed to restore more personalization back into the delivery service.
"Sometimes we take for granted just the ability to go to the grocery store and choose your favorite cereal, or your favorite produce," Moore said.
That's when a new partnership with Instacart innovated the process.
Moore said the grocery delivery company is letting Loaves and Fishes use its software to create an online food pantry, where clients can pick and choose their orders exactly to their liking, much like Instacart customers might select a grocery order.
"They absolutely love it -- especially clients that have a lot of dietary restrictions, allergies, or maybe even chronic health conditions -- instead of giving us a long list of things they can't have," Moore said.
Moore said, for now, Instacart is offering this service for free through its philanthropic arm, and volunteers will continue to drive the orders. But where it goes from here is still simmering.
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But by the numbers, Moore said this seems to be the way of the future. The pantry went from 8,000 delivery clients in 2020 to 16,000 last year to an anticipated 20,000 by the end of this year.
"We knew long before the pandemic that many of our clients struggle with transportation," Moore said. "So it's not just about the food, but it's about the food and the last mile of getting it right to their doorstep."