Several days each week, volunteers from a Cobb County nonprofit roll into metro Atlanta communities armed with fresh fruits and veggies to stage a battle against hunger.

It has been a month since MUST Ministries unveiled its “mobile pantry,” a 30-foot bus stocked with meats, produce and non-perishables. MUST plans to use the bus to reach and feed thousands of families in food desert neighborhoods.

“So many of our clients are transportation challenged,” MUST Ministries President and CEO Dwight “Ike” Reighard told the AJC recently. “We believe they will be able to serve about 16,000 people per year with the mobile unit.”

The mobile pantry is the first food bank of its kind in the region, according to officials from the Marietta-based nonprofit who tout it as an innovative way to address a growing need.

MUST Ministries was doling out a ton of food each day before the pandemic began. Now the nonprofit averages 3.5 tons of food distributions each day, according to MUST officials.

“I think the idea is to bring the food to the community,” said Pamela White, who visited the pantry at the Walton Ridge Apartments in Marietta. “It’s convenient for the seniors to come here if they drive or get a ride like I did. And they just put it in the trunk and we can go.”

The bus is set up like a food bank on wheels. It’s equipped with 2,500 pounds of food, enough to feed 100 families.

According Yvonne Byars, a senior director who runs the program, MUST Ministries purchased a city transit bus from Florida and spent nearly six months transforming the interior into a farmer’s market-style pantry. The total cost to buy, remodel and retrofit the bus was $250,000.

The inner cabin where seats once were now has shelves stocked with apples, oranges and fresh produce. On the other side of the aisle, a freezer is filled with juices, dairy and meat products.

Most of the food supplies come from the Atlanta Community Food Bank or through donations. Kroger has donated $240,000 to sponsor the first year of operations.

“With the price of things going up, gas and everything’s going up, the fact that I don’t have to worry about food is very helpful,” said Sharon Besse, who was able to load up when the mobile pantry came yards from her front door.

Matt Holian relocated from a small farm town in northern Illinois earlier this year. He said the wait list for senior housing in Illinois was five years, and his daughter found him a unit at Walton Ridge Apartments where the rent is subsidized for seniors.

“For me, I’m just making rent. Just making a lot of my bills,” Holian said. “And this is the next best thing to keep things going.”

The bus has been visited churches, schools, apartments, extended stay motels, mobile home communities and parks in Cobb and Cherokee counties. Byars said there are plans to expand the program to Fulton County at some point.

“We’re growing and we’re getting a lot of requests to come out to different communities.”

The mobile pantry was born out of the Neighborhood Pantry Program, another food pantry operation MUST Ministries operated at schools in Cobb and Cherokee counties.

“Running that program, I knew how transportation was such an issue,” Byars said. “And then when the pandemic hit, the schools shut down. So we had to figure out a way to get food to the families that normally come to the schools.”

Cars are usually lined up waiting on the bus before it rolls into an apartment complex or church parking lot.

Emma Ross, 65, was the first in line Nov. 16 when the mobile pantry came to the Walton Ridge Apartments, an affordable housing complex where she lives. Many of the apartments at Walton Ridge are age-restricted for seniors.

“When they got the bus, I was so happy for them,” Ross said as she waited in her car while volunteers set up the drive-thru. “God has blessed them to get this bus. Because some of us can get out, but a lot of us can’t.”

She said the 50 pounds of food that MUST Ministries gives out lasts her at least a month. Other residents who live alone said they can stretch the rations out two months.

“Everything that we need and more, they have,” Ross said.

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