From the street, Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard (MHC) is barely visible to the eye. The building in a strip mall on Bloomington’s south side is small and modest, but the significance of its services is not.
Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard is a local food pantry that focuses on nutrition, organic growing and educating its clients, according to Brooke Gentile, the MHC executive director.
“I was really excited to work at Mother Hubbard’s because we provide the healthiest food possible,” she said. “And also because we empower everyone involved.”
MHC is unique because many of the clients are also volunteers. Eighty percent receive food from the pantry on a regular basis. Volunteering at the organization includes activities such as picking up food, stocking, cleaning, helping in the community gardens, teaching classes, designing Web pages, assisting with fundraising and more.
“A lot of people feel uncomfortable asking for help,” said Gentile. “But it’s easier to take when you’re giving back. We really are a community food pantry.”
In 1998, founders Jessica Mott and Laura Marks started MHC out of a garage on South Walnut Street. Mott and Marks were both clients of food pantries and wanted to give back to the community. They especially wanted to help the younger, single parents in the Bloomington population.
“They found that the need in the community was much greater than they thought,” said Gentile.
In 2000, MHC moved to its current location, 1010 S. Walnut St. Then, in 2006, the facility expanded to 1,000 square feet. Mother Hubbard’s operates rent-free, care of Perry Township. Rent for the building would come to $15,700 a year.
MHC has distributed over 3 million pounds of food over the last nine years.
From the beginning, nutrition and health were keystone elements. The first mission statement focused on healthy food, according to Gentile.
Hoosier Hills Food Bank (HHFB), a nonprofit agency that collects and distributes food to more than 80 organizations in six counties, is essential to the food pantry. MHC receives 98 percent of its food from HHFB, is the food bank’s biggest recipient and purchases food three mornings a week.
“We try to get to Hoosier Hills a little later than everyone else, around 10 a.m.,” said Gentile. “It takes us a good two hours to pick out our food.”
The volunteers who go to HHFB pick up dried food, canned goods and other specifics. Every item of food available at the food bank is sold for 14 cents a pound. There is no charge for produce and bread.
Although Mother Hubbard's primarily focuses on healthy food, it takes what is available, Gentile said.
“If the food bank doesn’t have fresh produce, that’s okay,” she said. “We try to balance and prioritize healthy food, but of course we take canned and boxed items if that’s not available.”
Three days a week MHC receives deliveries of bread and produce from HHFB. Volunteers unpack boxes and stock shelves.
Mother Hubbard’s opens at 4 p.m., holds a steady stream of clients for about two hours and serves around 120 households a week, or 1,500 people, according to Gentile.
MHC also provides classes and programs for its clients to raise awareness of nutrition and well-being.
One of the biggest projects is Plant a Row for the Hungry, which is a citywide campaign sponsored by MHC, HHFB, Bloomingfoods, Worm’s Way, Hilltop Garden and Nature Center, and the Bloomington Parks and Recreation Department.
The project involves local gardeners planting an extra row of produce in their gardens to donate to HHFB, which then distributes the food to the agencies it serves.
MHC’s other programs fall into two categories: community gardening and nutrition education.
The gardening classes teach clients how to grow organic gardens. Classes include planting seeds, tending and harvesting the food.
From April to November, classes run from 4 to 6 p.m. on Mondays at Harmony School and from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Crestmont Community Gardens on Tuesdays.
MHC’s nutrition education program offers a variety of classes, including jamming, canning, garden-to-table cooking and more. Cooking classes are held at Banneker Community Center and the Purdue Cooperative Extension office.
MHC also offers and sponsors non-cooking programs, such as Hub Ride for the Hungry, a tour of Maple Valley Farm, and more.
Funding for MHC comes from a variety of sources. Recently, the pantry was awarded $5,000 from Perry Township to help during the summer months. Most of the money MHC receives goes toward food, utilities and to pay two full-time staffers.
Gentile said the 95 volunteers who help run the pantry are invaluable.
“Trying to put a value on all the volunteer hours is impossible,” she said. “They just help out so much.”
According to its 2007 Annual Report, 29 percent of MHC’s funds comes from individual contributions, 21 percent from grants, 20 percent from HHFB food donations, 11 percent from fundraising, 8 percent in-kind (rent from Perry Township), 7 percent in-kind (other sources) and 4 percent from businesses.
According to its Web site, MHC envisions “a community in which everyone has equal access to nutritious food, waste is minimized, and all members are healthy, self sufficient and empowered to reach their full potential.”
Jaclyn Baker can be reached at .