How to Start and Run a Pet Food Pantry

Photo Credit: Mindi Callison, Bailing Out Benji

The little pug’s name was Miss Kitty. She belonged to a man who wanted to go into treatment, “but the one big barrier to him getting the support he needed was making sure that his dog was cared for,” says Shannon Glenn, executive director of My Pit Bull Is Family, which created the North Minneapolis Pet Resource Center, a pet pantry in Minnesota.

Miss Kitty | How to Start and Run a Pet Pantry
Miss Kitty

His mother, who Shannon calls J, wanted to help—she wanted her son to get well, and she wanted to help him do that by caring for Miss Kitty. She just wasn’t sure how she’d be able to; she hadn’t planned on the extra expense of a pet.

Luckily, J lives in an apartment across the street from the North Minneapolis Pet Resource Center, a pet pantry opened by the advocacy group My Pit Bull Is Family in January 2020. J came in, explained her situation—and left with a month’s worth of food and supplies.

“We were able to provide a peace of mind to J because she knew her son would get the support he needed and as an added bonus, she was able to have a companion,” Shannon says.

J’s son went to treatment. Miss Kitty stayed with her family. A year after that first visit, J and Miss Kitty are still regulars. Sometimes they’re picking up some food, or just coming to say hello. One night they came in after hours for a good tennis ball play session, Miss Kitty’s very favorite activity. 

From time to time, J will even “place a donation in our donation jar” during one of her visits, Shannon says. “A full circle moment for sure.”

Pet pantries can play a transformative role in families’ lives, and in your community. They can keep families together, and prevent loved pets from being given up to shelters that are already struggling for space. 

But what’s involved with starting one, or keeping one going?

To find out, we asked a lot of nosy questions to a whole lot of organizations that are running pantries in their communities. They include major government shelters, nonprofits with and without government contracts, and rescue and advocacy groups.

We also spoke with Aurora Velazquez, who is the director of CUDDLY’s comprehensive pet pantry program—which supports some 150 organizations “from some of the biggest shelters in the country to a little organization that distributes their food at the local laundromat,” as Aurora puts it. 

Here’s how you can do it, too.

What do you carry at your pantry, and what are the most requested items?

There’s some staples provided by every organization we spoke with: wet and dry food for dogs and cats. Kitty litter, food bowls, crates, leashes, and collars.

Greenville County Animal Care, the government shelter in Greenville, South Carolina and the largest open-admission animal facility in South Carolina, also supplies dog houses, and trolley systems.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington in Northern Virginia, a nonprofit shelter with a government contract, in addition offers “beds and small pet supplies,” and as with all the goods it’s as they are available, says Ashley Hay, AWLA’s director of community support.

Nashville Humane, a nonprofit shelter in Tennessee, gets “a healthy amount of variance in requests,” says Alexandra Furr, who was community resource coordinator at the time of our conversation, including some “niche” requests like ramps and pet stairs for senior pets and pets with mobility issues.

As with most pet pantries, Nashville Humane gives out food in gallon-sized Ziplocs, each of which holds 3.5 pounds of dry food. 

“This allows us to distribute on a mass scale and has ensured the growth, sustainability, and impact of food programs,” says Alexandra. “We label each bag with brand, type of food, main protein, and expiration month and year (e.g. Purina Dog Chicken 12/24).”

How much food do you supply every month, and/or how many people do you serve?

There’s a huge range here—it’s largely up to any organization to determine its scale depending on the resources that are available (including staff and volunteers’ time) and your community’s needs.

Pet Support Case Manager Kaycey Adair says that Greenville’s numbers change every month, but the pantry typically gives out between 1,100-1,500 pounds of food in a month, 50-60 pounds of cat litter, and 5-10 dog crates. The pet pantry typically serves around 300 people and between 400-600 pets per month.

At Nashville Humane, the food bank typically supports 31 pet families per week, with that number going up in the fall and winter. 

The North Minneapolis Pet Resource Center is currently working with about 400-500 families a month.

“We’re seeing about a hundred per week, and that includes our deliveries that we do on Saturdays, but we’re hoping to be open more days and expand more, as well,” Shannon says.

Do you have eligibility requirements?

A few organizations had a few requirements—one required pets to be spayed or neutered; some limit their participation to residents of their county; one group provided food and supplies to a maximum of five pets per family per month.

But in almost every case, even those pantries with eligibility requirements keep a level of flexibility, to meet the overall goal of making sure that any pet who needs food and supplies, will be able to access them.

That’s how Kaycey describes Greenville’s pet pantry, which was founded about six years ago, and “serves anyone in Greenville county that is in need of pet food,” she says.

“We are a no questions asked pantry,” echoes Mindi Callison, founder and executive director of Bailing Out Benji, an education and advocacy group in Iowa. “We don’t believe it is fair or equitable for people to prove that they are in need of assistance. We do ask that people only visit our pantry once a month, as we try to give a month’s supply at a time.”

Best practice is to have no eligibility requirements, to the extent possible, says CUDDLY’s Aurora Velazquez. “If someone says they are in need, let’s believe them. What is the worst thing that happens? Their pet has some extra food this month?” she says. “It’s infinitely better to sometimes give free food to someone who doesn’t need it, than to not help someone who’s in crisis because a barrier prevents them from getting the help they need.”  

How do you get your food and supplies?

Every organization we spoke with received much, if not all, of their food and supplies via donations—with local stores making donations, along with members of the public donating money and supplies, and buying goods off wishlists. Grants funding pet retention programs are also used to keep pantries stocked. 

A local Krogers donates most of Louisville Metro Animal Services’s food, for example—two pallets every two weeks. The supplies are purchased with grants that are for pet retention programs.
Vintage Pet Rescue, a nonprofit senior dog rescue and sanctuary in Rhode Island, has food and supplies donated by a local pet store chain called Rumford Pet. “They have been an incredible partner and we could not do this without them,” says VPR’s founder Kristen Peralta. “The staff at Rumford attends our events as well.”

Bailing Out Benji’s food comes through a variety of sources. One is a large shelter partner, that is part of the Greater Good program through which they can purchase food at a discounted rate. A local store, Wholesome Pet Essentials, also donates food every month.

“They regularly give us damaged bags, foods they are no longer selling,” says Mindi. “We also have a wonderful community and are able to put out pleas for help and they fill our pantry shelves.” 

In addition to donations through community partners, and one individual with whom they have a longstanding relationship and who will often fill the coffers when needed, the North Minneapolis Pet Resource Center uses a lot of wishlists to solicit donations—including a CUDDLY wishlist, an Amazon wishlist, and a Chewy wishlist.

“And a lot of community members do drop off food and supplies,” says Shannon. “We also have folks that have previously utilized our pet pantry that are now dropping off supplies as they can.”

Where do you store your food and supplies?

Storage is a fairly universal challenge, with a range of solutions that more or less come down to: wherever there’s room, and where the food won’t be gotten into by unwanted critters. 

Greenville stores food “in a room that used to be a small dog kennel,” says Kaycey. Wall kennels hold different sizes of Ziploc bags—these are used to apportion pet food; for example, a 45 pound bag of food is divided into three smaller bags. Overflow food and dog houses are stored in a garage. Crates are tucked away in a small hallway next to Kaycey’s office.

Similarly, the Animal Welfare League of Arlington stores food and supplies “wherever we can fit!” says Ashley. “Depending on the time of year, every nook or cranny of our shelter has some Pet Pantry inventory in it.”

The North Minneapolis Pet Resource Center is lucky to have ample storage in the building that does double duty as its office and its pantry—but they still contend with doorways that aren’t big enough to accommodate full pallets of food. That means having to unpack the pallets and bring individual bags into the office. 

They’ve learned that you can’t just leave bags of pet food on the floor, though, because then “it’s going to become dinner for some pets that you’re not trying to feed,” Shannon says. Right now, that means using lots of plastic bins, while investigating the possibility of adding an outdoor shed, pending landlord approval.

How is your pet pantry staffed?

For most organizations we spoke with, the pet pantry is largely staffed by volunteers—with paid staff playing some role, and in some cases with the pantry having at least one full time staff member dedicated to the program in a full time role.

That’s the case for Animal Welfare League of Arlington, which has one full time staff member to run the pet pantry, with other members of the community support team pitching in. 

Volunteers also play a large role. AWLA has four or five regular weekly pet pantry volunteers, who come in for two hour shifts. That comes to about 40 hours of volunteer hours in the pantry every month.

Nashville Humane’s pantry is led by volunteers, “with the Community Resource Coordinator offering support as needed,” Alexandra says.

Aurora recommends that to the extent possible, more staff and volunteers be deployed to the pantry, rather than fewer. She also advises that, to the extent possible, people who speak the languages of your community are staffing your pantry.

What is your schedule for giving out the door and supplies? Do you have a physical location? Do you do deliveries?

The answers here varied, depending largely on the organization’s bandwidth and the community’s need.

The Animal Welfare League of Arlington’s pantry, for example, is open every day during regular business hours, and “we see a steady flow of families coming into the pantry on a daily basis,” says Ashley.  They also do home deliveries on the third Friday of every month, “geared towards those that don’t have the ability to get to the shelter.”

Nashville Humane runs a drive-through pet pantry in their parking lot from 12:00-2:00 p.m. every Wednesday. They also provide and distribute food and supplies through human service partners in Davidson County, Tennessee—the county where the shelter is located.

“We also do our best to say yes when folks need pet food outside of food bank hours,” Alexandra says. “We know if your pet is hungry Friday, waiting till Wednesday is not an option.”

Vintage Pet Rescue holds two “traveling food/resource pantry” events per month that take place in different Rhode Island public housing agencies. It’s a way to reach seniors who aren’t able to drive to the community’s other fixed-location pantries.

“We wanted to start a program that would bring the necessary supplies and resources to them,” says Kristen. VPR brings dog and cat food, treats, beds, blankets, toys, and accessories—and partners with groomers who can take care of trims, baths, and nail trims, along with vet techs who can answer pet owners’ questions. 

Pets who need more care can be referred to a Veterinary Assistance Program, through which pet owners can get help with their pets’ medical needs.

Do you partner with any other human or animal services organizations?

You can hold events with groups that provide services to humans and/or to animals, or give some of your food and supplies to the organizations for them to distribute themselves. 

Either way, forming partnership with other groups can offer advantages to your organization, as well as to the people and pets in your community.

“You partner with someone else and suddenly you have twice as many volunteers to help give out food, twice as many to talk to the clients and see how to best work with them, a whole new group of people who might be interested in donating to your cause,” says Aurora.

Check out the HASS Community Partnerships toolkit.

Louisville Metro Animal Services, a government shelter serving the city of Louisville and Jefferson County in Kentucky gives out food and supplies directly to members of the community. They also have about a half-dozen organizations—animal rescues, and human services organizations—they provide food and supplies, too. 

“Pretty much if anybody needs food and they come up and they ask for it, we’ll try to help them,” says Lieutenant Allen Gerlach, the organization’s kennel supervisor. When LMAS has food ready to be distributed to partners, Allen will send around a text telling them to bring a truck and load up, “or we can load up a truck and send it to you.”

This includes a group that provides supplies to people living in a homeless encampment; the pet food is part of kits given out, that also have clothes, and other supplies.

AWLA also partners with other organizations for its Mobile Pet Pantry popup events, which are usually held three times a month. “These events are typically held in partnership with other food insecurity programs and distributions in our county,” says Ashley.

Shannon raises one issue to bear in mind, when partnering with other organizations: to be sure that the other groups’ eligibility requirements will not present barriers to accessing pet food and supplies.

“Just think of undocumented families,” she says, or families earning just over another group’s maximum income requirement but who do still need support. 

How do you get word out about your pantry?

We didn’t get a lot of surprise answers here—folks are getting word out through the usual channels, like their websites, social media, traditional media, word of mouth, and through community partners. 

May we also suggest that anyone running a pet pantry list it on, a first-of-its kind website to connect people in your community with pet support! Here are instructions on how to get started.

Bailing Out Benji keeps a dedicated Facebook page just for the pet pantry, where they post hours, updates, and calls for help.

“We are also listed on our county’s website as a resource for people needing assistance and our local shelter and human food pantries regularly send people our way,” says Mindi.

In addition to the usual means, AWLA shares community programs information cards at any shelter event that they attend. 

The North Minneapolis Pet Resource Center sees a lot of referrals from social services agencies. They’re also getting a lot of traffic through word of mouth, via “community members that we’ve had the pleasure to meet continue to tell their friends and family,” Shannon says.

Aurora recommends that all organizations focus not just on where they are spreading the word, but also how.

“One of the biggest pitfalls we see is in storytelling,” she says. “We’re not sharing the incredible stories of families with whom we’ve built relationships and we’re not explaining how keeping pets with the families who love them helps the homeless animals who need shelter care. The public never gets to become invested.”

These communications kits put out by HASS and HeARTs Speak can help you with your storytelling about pet support programs, like a pet pantry!

Do you have any tips for those who are just getting started?

Allen recommends reaching out to local businesses like pet stores, hardware stores, and feed supply stores, about donating pet food and supplies. “You’ll find people that have the same heart,” he says.

Shannon says the key is to “make sure that you’re doing it alongside your neighbors and community members because their needs might not be exactly what you think that they are.” 

For the North Minneapolis Pet Resource Center, that meant scouring city data before opening to see where pets were being surrendered, and locating their pantry in the zip code with the highest number of surrenders. 

But that wasn’t the end—the team then went to farmers markets and other local gathering spots in that neighborhood to ask people what it is they wanted from a pet resource center. Often they just put out a big piece of posterboard with a marker, to make it as easy as possible for people to share their thoughts. 

“Folks could write down what a pet resource center would mean to them,” says Shannon. “And that’s everything that we do today.”

Alexandra’s biggest piece of advice is to manage expectations. “Commit to the phrase ‘as resources allow,'” she advises. “We do our best but all resources, programs, and services are available as resources allow.” 

Kristen has the simplest advice: I am far from an expert,” she says.”But, my advice would be to just do it. Take the plunge and you’ll learn along the way.”

Do you think your pantry makes a difference?

You don’t always see consensus in animal welfare. But everyone we spoke with said yes to this question. Yes, the pantry makes a difference. Yes, it keeps families together. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Every single day we are reminded why this pantry is important,” says Mindi, who hears from people saying the food has improved their pet’s health. She hears from people who are struggling, and say the pantry is the only way they can keep pets at home until things get better.

“And we hear from so many families who, before they learned about us, would cut into their own food supply and budget to make sure their pets ate too,” Mindi adds. “We aren’t just helping animals with our pantry. We are keeping families together, and we are lessening the burden on our local animal shelter who has thanked us several times for keeping their numbers low.”

Kaycey, like everyone else we spoke with for this blog, agrees. “It may feel like a food pantry won’t help much,” she says. “But most of the time a little help with pet food is all a person needs to keep their pet.”


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