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Home » Just right: $500K renovation dramatically expands food pantry, giving it an inviting grocery store vibe | News, Sports, Jobs

Just right: $500K renovation dramatically expands food pantry, giving it an inviting grocery store vibe | News, Sports, Jobs

7 min read

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Just Food recently renovated its building at 1000 E. 11th St. The food pantry, now 65% larger and more like a grocery store, is pictured on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Early Wednesday morning Steven Elliott and several other workers stocked the shelves at Just Food with canned goods, fresh produce, an impressive array of meats and quite a bit of good cheer.

The work was the same as most mornings — preparing the pantry at 1000 E. 11th St. for the hundreds of area residents who require food assistance each day. But Wednesday it was taking place in a newly renovated space that looked more like a hip urban grocery store than the utilitarian pantry of old, whose warehouse vibe could never quite defeat the stigma often associated with food banks.

Brightly colored walls and stylish light fixtures in green, orange and yellow greeted visitors who stepped into the spacious interior, which is 65% larger than before.

It was evident that Elliott, Just Food’s volunteer manager, was enjoying his new, “much less cramped” workspace, but what he clearly valued was the experience shoppers could now have.

Volunteer Manager Steven Elliott

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Volunteer Manager Steven Elliott stocks shelves at Just Food on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Elliott said the new grocery store atmosphere was an important aspect of reducing any stigma that might be associated with using food banks.

“Dignity has really been our motivator and our driver front to back,” he said of the renovated space. “I mean, there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to access food in a dignified way.”

The half-million dollar renovation at the nonprofit, now in its 11th year, was spearheaded by Elizabeth Keever, Just Food’s executive director.

“That was completely her vision,” said Amanda Davis, the 2020 president of Just Food’s board of directors, adding that Keever’s realized vision “feels like a neighborhood bodega in New York City, only nicer.”

Jessica Cooney

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Client Services Manager Jessica Cooney stocks jalapenos at Just Food on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Years in the making

Back in 2018 Keever initiated a strategic plan to renovate Just Food. The idea was to make it much bigger and more like a traditional store where people could stroll through the aisles and choose their groceries based on what they felt like eating. “Before” photos of the old space show earnest efforts toward that goal, but the compact space severely limited what the staff could do.

The pantry area, once 1,000 square feet, is now 1,650 square feet. Additionally, all of the administrative offices that were on the ground floor were moved to the second floor, freeing up space for enticing food displays, as well as a large demonstration kitchen and a wellness room where people can undergo various health screenings, like blood pressure and glucose checks.

Just Food

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Just Food recently renovated its building at 1000 E. 11th St. The Just Food facility is pictured on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Just Food

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Just Food recently renovated its building at 1000 E. 11th St. The pantry includes a large demonstration kitchen, where nutrition and cooking classes are taught. It’s pictured on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

The changes have been a hit with customers, Keever said. On Tuesday, the day of the grand reopening, the pantry served 270 households, which Keever said translates to about 800 people. Surveys taken that day reveal prolific praise for the renovation.

One person, echoing many, wrote: “I love Just Food. It has saved me and my family since I lost my job and helped my daughter who makes very little in her social service job. The food is presented ethically, it is like a real grocery store, and I feel like I leave with my dignity intact.”

Executive Director Elizabeth Keever

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Just Food’s executive director, Elizabeth Keever, describes prepackaged meal kits on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Just Food recently renovated its building at 1000 E. 11th St.

On Wednesday Keever grabbed one of the shiny new shopping carts and wheeled it around the produce section, which contained large bins of food staples like potatoes and carrots, as well as more unusual items like Key limes and eggplants. Beyond the big dairy case and bread displays, she moved toward the canned goods, pastas and proteins, explaining how a clicker on the new carts allowed shoppers to conveniently keep track of their “points.”

Just Food

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Just Food now has carts that help shoppers collect their groceries and keep track of their points.

Points are like prices. A family of four, for example, gets 30 points per week. Bread costs zero points. A produce bag filled to the brim is one point, and a jar of peanut butter is two. Prepared meal kits — for example, a box containing all the ingredients you need to make roasted sweet potato soup — cost a bit less. The point system was devised in 2019, Keever said, but the fancy carts made their debut with last week’s reopening.

Just Food

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Just Food distributes food and pantry items based on household size and a point system. Forms are pictured on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

During the monthslong renovation, designed by Gould Evans architects and built by Mar Lan Construction, Just Food temporarily relocated to Peaslee Tech in southern Lawrence.

A mixed blessing

Keever’s strategic plan for the renovation included an enormous amount of detail, but one thing it couldn’t strategize for was a global pandemic, which struck right before Keever was set to tackle the renovation’s most crucial detail: how to pay for it.

The capital campaign was slated to launch in April 2020, just weeks after the pandemic took hold in Lawrence. Schools and businesses shut down. Residents lost their jobs, fell behind on their bills and faced an unemployment system unequipped to handle the staggering number of claims. It was a terrible time to ask people for money.

Just Food staff

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Just Food staff are pictured at 1000 E. 11th St. on Wednesday, March 3, 2021. Left to right: Aundrea Shafer, program director: Tory Roberson, food recovery manager; Jessica Cooney, client services manager: Paul Peach, operations director; Ryan Bowersox, outreach director; Steven Elliott, volunteer manager; Elizabeth Mayfield Keever; executive director; Brett Salsbury, director of finance and development; Michaela Cantrell, community health specialist. Not pictured: Wayne Briggs, food recovery assistant.

In fact, Davis, then-president of Just Food’s board, said she assumed the pandemic would delay the renovation “for years” — and, sadly, exactly at a time when the community’s need for food assistance would be skyrocketing.

Another misfortune: The small size of the food pantry didn’t allow for the social distancing required by the pandemic. For a time, people had to get their groceries via a drive-thru system.

According to Keever, before the pandemic hit, 19,000 people in Douglas County needed food assistance. At the peak of the pandemic, that number was over 27,000.

But while the pandemic at first appeared to be a daunting obstruction to fundraising, in the end the opposite proved true. The organization, it turned out, qualified for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as CARES, and eventually received $304,000 in federal money to use toward its renovation. The remaining $220,000 came from community donations.

“There are people who are incredibly generous,” Davis said. “The community took care of us.”

‘We’re lucky’

While Keever is quick to give credit to the donors, staff and volunteers — “We have upwards of 15,000 to 18,000 volunteer hours per year,” she said — Davis praises Keever not only for the food pantry’s expansion but also for the organization’s having survived and thrived over the past five years.

“She’s amazing,” Davis said.

Elizabeth Keever

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Just Food’s executive director, Elizabeth Keever, is pictured at the food pantry at 1000 E. 11th St. on Wednesday, March 3, 2021.

Keever, a Dallas native and University of Kansas graduate, started with Just Food in 2013 as its chief resource officer, responsible for marketing, communication, event planning and food acquisition.

But within just two years, she was called on to take the leadership role after former Lawrence Mayor Jeremy Farmer, who was Just Food’s executive director, was accused of financial wrongdoing. In 2016, he would plead guilty to stealing thousands of dollars from the nonprofit and would serve time in prison.

“She took a really difficult situation five years ago ” and “steered things in a positive direction,” Davis said of Keever.

According to Just Food’s 2019-2020 Annual Report, Keever has overseen an increase in food recovery of 618% in the past five years. Food recovery refers to unused food that comes to Just Food from local grocery stores and restaurants.

Annually, according to the report, “Just Food picks up 2,000-3,000 pounds of food per day that would have otherwise been thrown away.”

Keever also oversaw the development of a mobile pantry to bring food to people who were unable to visit Just Food, and she has increased the number of paid employees to 10.

“We were three when I took over, so I’m really proud of that,” she said.

And her colleagues are proud of her.

“We’re super lucky to have her,” Davis said of Keever, “because she could be anywhere.”

Just Food

photo by: Ashley Golledge

Just Food, pictured on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, recently renovated its building at 1000 E. 11th St. As part of the renovation, the building’s exterior will soon be painted green.

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