Stepping Stones pop-up panty carts

Last year, Katie Moore and Mike Bigelow showed off four service carts donated by 3M, their employer. Taking part in the community engagement part of the company’s Optimized Operations (O2) Experience, the pair assisted Stepping Stones to establish its new Pop-Up Mobile Pantries in Colfax, Downsville, Ridgeland and Sand Creek.

Nearly every industry, business and nonprofit can gain a significant advantage when trained outside observers take a look at their operations with an eye toward streamlining the way things work and making sure they’re as efficient as possible.

Used by manufacturers like 3M, there’s a tried-and-true system known as Lean Six Sigma that employs a collaborative, problem-solving approach to improving overall performance by reducing variation and removing waste. It forms the foundation of 3M’s two-year Optimized Operations (O2) Experience, a unique training and career development opportunity in manufacturing and supply chain functions that promises newly-hired engineering and other graduates in related fields that they will work on “challenging assignments and have rotational experiences that will inspire you to be an improvement-driven, socially cognizant and globally aware professional.”

Total “Engage”-ment

Stepping Stones recently reaped the benefit of the expertise of four such graduates who found themselves assigned to the 3M plant in Menomonie last year. Katie Moore holds a chemical engineering degree from the University of Texas in Austin, while the remaining three graduated with mechanical engineering degrees: Tim Kesting (Iowa State University); Erika Soto (Columbia University in New York City), and Mike Bigelow (Michigan State University).

Moore explained how they became involved with Stepping Stones: “Part of the O2 program in the first year is called an ‘Engage’ project. We’re supposed to partner with a local nonprofit or someone in the community who needs help on a project where we can use the training and skills we’ve gained in project management and that sort of thing.”

Splitting into teams of two, each pair worked with Kris Pawlowski, Stepping Stones’ assistant director and food pantry coordinator. Moore and Bigelow helped to set up twice monthly “pop-up” pantries in Sand Creek and Ridgeland, while Kesting and Soto’s job was to examine the organization and work flow in the food pantry and warehouse.

Pop-up project

In 2018, with encouragement and mentoring by Feed My People Food Bank in Eau Claire, Stepping Stones began looking into setting up mobile food pantries (also called “pop-up pantries) to address the needs of people in remote and underserved areas of Dunn County.

“We started doing some of the legwork – scouting the sites, making sure we would have access at the times we needed and support onsite to unload and reload,” Moore said. “We helped recruit volunteers, advertising to find people to drive the trucks and to help out onsite.”

Employing Lean thinking to eliminate as much waste as possible from the process, Bigelow said, “We acquired some utility carts so that the volunteers can safely and quickly move food from the truck into the pantry. … You don’t want to exert any more work than you have to.”

He pointed out that in addition to saving time and effort, the carts fill an important ergonomic role: “We don’t want our volunteers to get injured over time, carrying things up and down ramps, twisting their knees … dropping things on their feet. It’s a really simple fix for what can be complex problems.”

Figuring the safest and most efficient driving routes for the truck was also an important consideration. While back roads might be quicker, Moore pointed out that in bad weather, navigating the main roads instead is the better option.

Getting the word out

“We got to help out on one of the first runs where we went along with the truck, unloaded, kind of saw how things were flowing, made sure everything went well,” Moore said.

When it came to publicizing the new project, however, the pair learned quickly that their assumption that simply turning to social media to advertise the new pop-up pantries doesn’t necessarily work in small communities.

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Posting and handing out flyers proved to be far more effective, serving to ignite the word-of-mouth communication for which rural communities are so well known.

“You really have to know your audience,” Bigelow observed. “When Katie and I were on our first run, there was a gentleman who said, ‘Well, I’m gonna go and tell my neighbor’ – and came back with one other person.”

He noted that while attendance at the first pop-up pantries in Sand Creek and Ridgeland was sparse, it dramatically increased by the second and third runs. By June, an additional twice-monthly pop-up pantries were also established in Colfax and Downsville.

Improving the flow

While Kesting and Soto spent most of their O2 time with another nonprofit, they managed to get a start on creating a standard operating procedure (SOP) manual for Stepping Stones’ warehouse to provide volunteers with details about where to put things, how to clean up and so on.

“We kind of mingled with the warehouse regulars to get input into those documents,” Kesting said.

An example of an easy improvement he and Soto identified involved using magnetic dry erase strips – donated by 3M – for some labeling in the pantry shopping area.

The teammates also explored options for the possible future acquisition of a refrigerated truck. “We calculated maintenance costs, fuel and registration costs, insurance, and then compiled a yearly cost,” Kesting said.

Already hard at work expanding on the SOP project are 3M’s latest O2 interns, Alejandro Munoz (material science engineer) and Colvin Cassin (chemical engineer) who have also been busy exploring volunteer recruitment options and training programs.

Lessons learned

Coming from more urban parts of the country, Bigelow said that he and Moore learned to allow extra time to navigate throughout Dunn County. As a result, they now have a new appreciation of the challenges faced by those who have to travel long distances to get food, especially when there’s no public transportation or a reliable vehicle available.

Moore and Bigelow also discovered that not only is rural broadband a serious issue, many who use the pop-up pantries may not have internet and find themselves depending on the local library for access.

Soto wasn’t available to weigh in on her O2 experience, but Kesting said he thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to connect with agencies in Menomonie: “It really gives our first job rotation that much extra pizazz helping out in the local community.”

Barbara Lyon is Stepping Stones’ development and communications. She can be reached at development@steppingstonesdc.org

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(1) comment


This might be the closest to working class these professional kids will ever get.

This makes a nice 3M cares story.

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