News + Events

Expanding Access for Food Insecure Households

Unity on the Move

The Unity House food pantry announces new, online ordering system for food pantry

Guests who visit Unity House’s Community Resources program are often in need of groceries. Food insecurity, when a person or a family does not have access to sufficient food, or food of an adequate quality to meet their basic needs, is an issue for many. In some cases, food insecurity is intermittent in nature, for others, it can be chronic.

Food pantries and meals programs, like at Unity House, fill a vital need for those facing food insecurity. Since opening our community resource center in 2013, we have distributed over 100,000 pounds of food to people in need. Food in the form of groceries and hot meals not only fills a need, but Unity House’s food programs are also access points for other needed services, such as help with employment search, eviction prevention and housing help, children’s services, and referrals to Unity House’s Domestic Violence Services program.

Pandemic Pivot

Unity House never closed its doors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Unity House altered operations to be able to continue to serve, at a time when need for our services spiked. Staff switched to curbside service and were able to offer grocery delivery to some households who faced obstacles in accessing our food pantry. Staff found they were able to better control inventory and reduce waste.

Working throughout the pandemic in this way revealed opportunities to improve service delivery, streamline the process for guests and relieve some stress on staff at a time when labor shortages were intense. Staff looked to two solutions: adding a mobile food pantry and using an online ordering system. The goal with each innovation was to optimize strategies staff had put in place to meet increased demand while ensuring uninterrupted service delivery to people in need.

Unity on the Move and SmartChoice online ordering

Unity on the Move is a van that serves as Unity House’s mobile food pantry, visiting Troy neighborhoods and the surrounding community on a set schedule. SmartChoice is the software that brings the Unity House food pantry online, offering greater flexibility for guests to request food and for staff to manage inventory.

Just like supermarket online ordering systems, shoppers create a login to see the food available on pantry shelves. Because our food pantry is free of charge to those eligible, no dollars are used at checkout. Instead, eligible shoppers have a budget of points, allocated across the major food groups. A family of four, for example, will have a greater allotment of points for fruits and vegetables, than a single adult household. At online checkout, the SmartChoice system lets the user know how many points they have used. Shoppers can ‘bank’ points and roll them over, within limits. In this way, shoppers receive a balanced order of food, have optimal choice, and food waste is reduced. Benefits to shoppers include the choice of when to shop the food pantry online, how many points to use in a shopping session, whether to save points for a future visit, and when to receive their groceries. Future plans include the option of where to receive groceries: pick up groceries at their chosen day at Unity House’s community resource center, or pick up their order out in the community, through Unity on the Move.

Online access reduces barriers

Once the system is live, guests who sign up for the online food pantry system can access their food pantry shopping account from home, their handheld device, or through kiosks set up at Unity House’s community resource center at 2431 Sixth Avenue in Troy, the main hub for our food security programs. Of course, walk-in guests and emergency orders can always be filled. For those who struggle with technology, there is help available, both in person and online. The goal is to improve access while improving efficient service delivery. In this way, we can make the most of our resources while continuing to make life better.

For questions about Unity House food programs, please reach out to Stefanie Bastien, Director of Development and Communications at (518) 274-2607 x4133