PORCH Pender works on a neighborhood level to assist local food pantries.
The concept is simple, but the impact is huge. Volunteers pick up food donations from the porches of their neighbors once a month and take the contributions to area food pantries. That is the model of PORCH Pender, a group that works with existing nonprofits to serve the needs of the community.
Christine Cotton, inspired by her son who packed extra food in his lunch for his friend at school who didn’t have enough to eat, joined forces with two friends back in 2010 to create the first PORCH model in Chapel Hill. What started as a few PORCH neighborhoods has grown into PORCH Communities, a grassroots group of more than 1,500 volunteers across 10 states and 20 chapters.
Jodi Tolbert oversees the newly established local chapter of PORCH Communities, PORCH Pender, along with co-leader Kim Joyce. Tolbert and Joyce worked together in the corporate world.
“We started talking about the increased cost of food and how that impacted us and other families in our area,” Tolbert says. “We decided we could do more.”
Tolbert’s sister, Jana Sauer, had launched a PORCH Communities chapter in the Raleigh area nine years ago.
“We reached out and stated that we wanted to start a community within Pender County,” Tolbert says.
That effort began in January 2023, and they are working with three local food pantries and multiple neighborhoods throughout Pender County as well as establishing new communities in Wilmington. The group provides food donations to Share the Table, Livingstone Tabernacle and the Christian Community Caring Center (4 Cs) in the greater Hampstead area.
PORCH Communities is focused on neighbors helping neighbors. In a neighborhood, residents are encouraged to leave food donations on their porches for volunteers to pick up. The volunteers are neighborhood coordinators who work with Tolbert and Joyce to schedule the monthly food drives and to then deliver the donations to local food pantries.
There are two to three coordinators for each neighborhood, and, to date, Tolbert says they have about 40 neighborhood coordinators helping with their porch pickups and pantry deliveries. Those volunteers include students participating in the newly launched PORCH Student Ambassadors Program.
The student program gives high school and college students an opportunity to get involved in the fight against hunger in their own communities. By agreeing to be an advocate to help educate the community and holding two pop-up food drives over six months, the students help connect PORCH to new members in the community with the goal of expanding the base of neighborhood coordinators. The program, led by Lori Webster of PORCH Communities, gives the students all the support and materials they need to be successful.
Tolbert says the program teaches the students the significance of what their impact could be and encourages them to eventually become a neighborhood coordinator. “The goal is to get new people involved on a monthly basis in their neighborhoods,” Tolbert says.
The simple concept of “local people feeding local people” has grown tremendously since PORCH was launched in 2010. Through the efforts of its volunteers, PORCH has donated more than 770,000 pounds of food and generated more than $10 million in hunger relief. In 2022 the organization as a whole collected 740,000 pounds of food, most of which has been literally picked up from neighborhood porches.
Volunteers are at the heart of the PORCH Communities concept. Neighborhood coordinators will post about the food drive to let everyone in the area know what day they will need to place their food donations outside for pickup. They put out reminders in the days leading up to the pickup, and then pick up the food on the designated day and time.
Tolbert says PORCH Pender collected 300 pounds of food at its first food drive in January.
The group hosted five food drives in February and collected 1,400 pounds of food in total over the first two months of operation. They have plans for expansion and growth. “Now more than ever our porches need to be filled,” she says.
The PORCH Communities model can work differently in different areas. PORCH Pender volunteers collect the food and deliver it directly to the local food pantries, without needing to sort through and organize the items. Other communities have their volunteers sort the collection before delivering the food items. Tolbert says she has met with the pantry representatives to learn more about their specific needs and about what kind of items they can take and store.
Simplicity and convenience are the keys to the model for all communities. “You just put it on your porch,” Tolbert says, adding that “some people don’t know where to give and this takes that out of the equation.”
The concept is a change of mindset in that they are giving neighbors the opportunity to get involved on a monthly basis by donating and volunteering rather than asking for financial contributions.
The Hampstead community has been overwhelmingly supportive. Joyce explains that they promote the monthly pickups through social media. “The more we posted, the more people came to us,” she says. PORCH Pender’s growth has been quick and effective, with neighborhoods being added every month.
Every food donation, no matter how small, makes a difference.
“Coordinators sometimes feel bad if they don’t pick up a lot of food,” Tolbert says. “What they don’t realize is that even 70 pounds of food can feed 100 people.”
She says she and Joyce do a lot of talking through that with neighbors to remind them of this fact.
In addition, Joyce says, they “wondered early on if we would be seen as competition to other food drives.” She explains that they are not and, in fact, are partnering with the food pantries, which, both of them say, “do a phenomenal job.”
The focus of PORCH Pender is to keep it local, Tolbert explains. “The shorter amount of time food sits on someone’s porch to getting it on a pantry shelf, the quicker it’s going to get on someone’s table.”
Photography by Lighthouse Films