Mountlake Senior Living residents are thinking outside the box to turn food waste into community food. Cindy Ptasnik, Mountlake Senior Living Steering Committee Chairperson, set out to find a better way to connect her community to food resources, save others trips to the grocery store and reduce exposure to illness. Thanks to the creative thinking and time commitment from Mountlake Senior Living residents, the food pantry’s gleaning movement was born.

Often, restaurants and grocers have a surplus of supplies, so places like Bethel Chapel and Hope Creek food bank contract with them to collect their surplus and distribute it to the community. This practice is called “gleaning.”

“Gleaning is not only to support people experiencing financial issues. It’s about protecting health, promoting good nutrition, and sharing resources regardless of income. It is a WIN for everyone!” Said Cindy Ptasnik.

Each week, volunteers pick up food from gleaning sites and come back to their onsite pantry with things like loaves of bread, deli salads, apples, onions, hot dogs, canned salmon, canned veggies, heads of iceberg, limes, oranges, and even Chick-fil-A.

The volunteers begin by unpacking and sorting food, culling out expired food, collecting bags, making signs, and setting up the community room for resident shoppers to come grab what they want. The volunteers remain in the room to answer questions and enforce COVID-19 precautions — making sure shoppers wear gloves and masks and limiting the number of shoppers in the room.

With over 135 visits last month, the gleaning project is a heavily utilized resource. A convenience for some and a necessity for others, residents may use this pantry to supply an ingredient for a recipe or for staples to help stretch their grocery budget.

The pantry not only provides food, but also an opportunity for community connectedness.

In the true spirit of gleaning, Cindy reinvented a surplus of ingredients into Southwest Chicken Rice Bowls for residents who wanted a hot meal, and thus “hot dish day” was born. Cindy and team work hard in the community kitchen preparing other dishes like chili with corn bread, minestrone with homemade croutons (from gleaned bread), spaghetti and meatballs with garlic bread, broccoli cheese soup, vegetable beef soup with crackers, beanie wienie, chicken noodle soup and bread pudding. On hot dish day, they regularly serve a home-made, hot meal to over 45 residents.

As the risk and fear of the pandemic has dissipated, the utility, pride and service of the Mountlake Senior Living food pantry has only grown. And thanks to Cindy and other residents with a caring, servant heart, the bustling, robust food pantry will be around for a long time even after the pandemic.

Story was written by the Community Life Foundation.