“We don’t have a lot of refrigerator space, so this is the only place we pick up produce,” Christine says. “If we can take back a good hunk of produce to people, it really helps out. Otherwise, we have macaroni and cheese and canned goods. But people need fresh produce, and it’s expensive.” – Christina Nava, Volunteer Open Arms Pantry

Christine Nava is a volunteer for Open Arms Pantry, a Harvesters partner agency in Olathe.

Every second and fourth Tuesday of the month, she pulls a box truck into a church parking lot in Overland Park to wait for mobile shopping floor distribution to begin.

At 8:30 a.m., a loaded Harvesters semi-truck pulls into the lot and the driver unloads palettes of fresh produce using a hydraulic jack. With a nod from an onsite coordinator, volunteers from the social services agencies line up and start filling their shopping carts.

“Johnson County is an underserved county, and we wanted to improve outreach where there are a lot of agencies close together. The agencies pick up produce here, head back to their pantries and the food will be in the hands of the community by noon,” says Ryan Kepley, Harvesters’ Agency Services Manager.

While the pantries routinely stock up on dry goods at Harvesters’ warehouse at 3801 Topping Ave., the addition of the mobile shopping floor in 2018 has proven to be an efficient way to expand distribution of fresh produce.

“It makes it so much easier to pick up fresh produce five minutes from your pantry instead of 30 minutes one way,” Kepley says. “The truck will be here, unload, agencies will grab product and our driver will reload and be done in 45 minutes. It’s incredibly fast.”

Each social service agency that shows up is entitled to an equal share of the day’s bounty, although a lack of refrigerator space means some organizations voluntarily forgo a full share. Open Arms’ share on a previous week weighed in at roughly 1,800 pounds to be further distributed between the 80 to 90 families the pantry serves each week.

Christine Nava’s shopping strategy includes quickly zeroing in on the “hodgepodge” palettes – what she describes as smaller quantities of less popular fruits and vegetables, items that are more likely to hit the preferences of the wide demographics Open Arms Pantry serves, which includes Hispanics, Muslims and Russians.

In the fall of 2023, the Harvesters mobile shopping floor expanded to serve social service agencies in the Northland. On the first and third Wednesday of the month, Pamela Sparks pulls her SUV into a church parking lot on Vivion Road.

She arrives a half hour before the Harvesters truck is scheduled to arrive in order to be sure she does not have to wait for a shopping cart, which slows down getting the food back to Harvesters partner agency, A Turning Point Food Pantry in Gladstone, Mo..

When Pamela retired a decade ago, she began volunteering at the pantry, which she describes as starting “in a closet” but has now grown to serve 90 families.

“And we could do more. We have those shelves filled, and whoosh, it’s just gone!” she says of the rising need.

Pamela is training another volunteer, Mary Fisher, in the art of the shopping floor. When the palettes have been unloaded, the women eagerly work together to lift items into their shopping cart.

After their haul is weighed, the senior women transfer all the items onto a blanket covering the SUV’s trunk, an exercise that includes Mary nimbly climbing into the trunk heads of cabbage, bags of sweet potatoes, ears of corn, flats of strawberries and bags of salad mix.

While sitting cross-legged, Mary stashes a few cabbages in the awkward spaces and joke about their workout.

“It’s as good for us as the people we do it for,” Pamela says. “It’s good for our hearts and bodies.”