Walking in the door, the first thing you see is the wooden fruit stands chock-full of red and green apples, bright orange citrus, green peppers and  tomatoes.  Large grain sacks decorate the walls and a large sign overhead reads “Welcome to our farm.” Shelves are loaded with a variety of breads, canned goods and even avocados and potatoes. No, this is not a farmer’s market, but that is the feel that Catholic Charities of Central Florida was after when they set out to transform their food pantry into a Mission Market.

Gary Tester, Catholic Charities’ executive director said, “We’ve moved to a choice pantry orientation that supports our neighbors’ opportunity to select foods that their family will eat. Many folks who are struggling to obtain food often do without fresh produce and proteins – we’ve begun to address that. This also affirms the inherent dignity of each person, which is a tenet of Catholic Social Teaching,”

The renaissance of the 28-year-old Semoran Food Pantry was born of the vision of Catholic Charities’ senior director of operations, Julie Yetter. “I kept thinking this needs to be more welcoming,” said Yetter. “I wanted to help people feel as good as they could when they came to the pantry because seeking assistance can be humiliating. We embrace our neighbors in need with love and dignity.”

Yetter explained that she loved when she and her daughter would pass by fruit stands. The allure of the colors and making their own selections sparked the idea of a welcoming change. The idea became a reality through the hard work and creativity of John Bonfilgio, Catholic Charities’ new food and facilities ministry manager. Bonfiglio’s vision is that all Catholic Charities food pantries around the diocese will transition to Mission Markets in the future, following current industry trends.

For Bonfiglio, the new Mission Market is an “educational piece”. “They get to choose what they want. It’s not someone choosing for them.”

Through a partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank and several grocery stores, the market now offers fresh produce in addition to the usual pre-packaged bags of groceries. It gives the clients (now referred to as neighbors) and their children a chance to learn what is healthy and how to best meet their own nutritional needs and personal preferences.

The market has a greater variety of food than before to meet the needs of varying cultures. There are also products that many are not familiar with and do not know how to cook, so once a month, a nutritionist from Second Harvest comes and provides food preparation demonstrations.

Stacey Brown and her fiancé Michael McGaha began coming to the market before its transformation. Brown recalled when there were only chairs where she would sit and wait until the food was brought to her. She and McGaha are excited by the change.

“I love it!” she said.  “You can actually pick what you want. Now I come in here and think, Wow! My daughter is picky about her fruit so this is nice. When you’re on a budget in a single family home, it’s tough. This is amazing—especially the fruit part.”

On May 15, the feast of Saint Isidore the Farmer, Bishop John Noonan blessed the market, calling to mind a quote from the Church Fathers (from the Vatican II document The Church in the Modern World), “Feed the man dying of hunger, because if you do not feed him, you have killed him.” He added, “It is a very powerful command to all of us that we have to feed our brothers and sisters.”

Catholic Charities is taking that command to heart. This month, the market went on the road with its new Free Mobile Food Drop, made possible through the partnership with Second Harvest Food Bank. The Mobile Food drop offers frozen meats, fruits, vegetables, canned and dry goods. The hope is to eventually expand into parishes that already have food pantries in place, in order to assist them in reaching those in need beyond the Mission Market’s doors. This is the harmonization of ministries so important to Bishop Noonan.

Bishop Noonan closed the blessing with a reminder that all life has value and should be treated with great respect and dignity saying, “You are the instruments of God and of the Church because everyone you touch is the presence of God.”