On Variety: Water Chestnuts

A widespread practice in the charity food system is the preemptive filtering out of products that could potentially be offered to people in need, either for reasons of nutrition, or because we think that the people being served won’t want/need them. When instead we get out of the way and let food, even obscure or unhealthy food, find its way to the right hands, it often solves problems we never even imagined.

This story comes to us from the late John Arnold, who at the time was the Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.

Before we conducted the Waste Not Want Not research project, most food banks around the country had never challenged the agencies they served to expand the range and variety of products that that they would take and offer to their clients. These food banks were very limited in what product they could take, because it made no sense for them to take product that the agencies they served would not take. So, periodically, the Second Harvest (now Feeding America) national office had to contact food banks like ours, food banks that had been working on trying to expand agency receptivity to new and different products. We would be asked to take loads that many of the food banks wouldn’t even consider taking.

That happened to us one time when the national office had been trying for years to get a particular multi-national producer to donate. When the company finally called with an offer of product, it was unfortunately product that most food banks wouldn’t even consider taking – water chestnuts in gallon size cans. They were in big SeaLand cargo containers, three of them, coming across from China, not labeled yet – they were going to be labeled when they arrived in the U.S. – and the ship had come through a typhoon. Some sea water had gotten in the containers and the cans had rusted. It turned out to be purely cosmetic rust, not deep product-integrity threatening rust. The rust was just something that made cans quite ugly – to the point that the buyer here in the U.S. refused to accept the product.

The company, wanting to cut its losses, offered them into the food banking system, and the national office was not succeeding in finding anyone willing to take them. So they called us and asked us to take one of those loads as a favor to the national program.  So we did, and ran them through our reclamation department so that we could check them and make sure that indeed each and every can’s level of rust was purely cosmetic and not serious from a food safety perspective.

Then we made product ingredient labels to put on them, and at that time we didn’t have a special label making machine, so we were just making up labels on a word processor, throwing them on the copier, separating them with a paper cutter, and then tape gunning them onto the cans. The result was just about the ugliest presentation that I have ever seen. They were truly ugly, but they were what they were, and we proceeded to offer them out to the agencies we serve.

Several weeks later, I was up at our subsidiary warehouse in Petoskey, Michigan. I had gone up there to do one of our regular annual monitoring inspections of the food bank. But that particular organization has dual roles. Half of their building is the Manna Food Bank that distributes food to about 30 agencies in the three-county area around Petoskey. The other half of the building is the Manna Pantry, which is one of those 30 agencies drawing food from the Manna Food Bank.

That particular day the Manna Pantry was being positively overrun with clients, an unusually large number of people seeking food. They were struggling to keep up, particularly with restocking the shelves as clients went through and shopped and found what they were going to take. So I offered to help out.

When I got over into the pantry area to do that, it turns out here were some of these gallon cans of water chestnuts. I was mortified. I mean, I’m the champion of agencies taking and offering out everything they can, but I must admit even I was taken aback to see those big silly gallon cans of water chestnuts sitting out there in a food pantry that was supplying food to individual households. I don’t know where I thought the water chestnuts were going to go, maybe to big soup kitchens or someplace, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they would be out in a pantry.

I was especially embarrassed because the label on the cans, the label that we had made and put on them. It featured our logo, fairly prominently, because you have to put the name of the distributor – in this case us – on labels like that. So the cans had our logo, and I happened to be wearing a sweatshirt that also had our logo on it, which led to me trying to stock the shelves near the clients with one hand while the other hand sort of covered up the logo on my sweater. I’d resolved that as soon as things were quiet I was going to get those cans out of there and admonish Manna Food Bank that that wasn’t an appropriate product to go into pantries.

No sooner had I made this decision than a client came through – a woman who upon seeing the water chestnuts did something of a double take. She leaned down, picked one up, read the label again just to make sure she had read it correctly, and then she hugged the can, went over and hugged the pantry director, and thanked her profusely for making such a wonderful product available. It had just totally exceeded her expectations or hopes for her visit to the pantry.  She explained that in order to stretch her food money, she grew a garden in the summer – which this was – and she ate a lot of greens and salads and things out of her garden and to have water chestnuts to put on those salads was just going to be an exquisite, marvelous, wonderful thing for her, and she was so thankful that they had made such a wonderful product available.

To say that I was a bit stunned was something of an understatement. I had not even begun to recover before an elderly gentleman came by that area, and again, did the surprise, the incredulity, the picking up of the can and the re-reading it to make sure that he was reading it correctly. He held the can up next to his head kind of like he would in a TV commercial and he announced to the entire room, “If you haven’t taken some of these and fried them up with a batch of fish, you just don’t know what good eating is!” And he clung to that can as though it was the most precious thing available.

At which point, I not only uncovered my sweater logo, but I was actually kind of strutting around and saying, “Well yeah, those came from us!” And you know, the point, the learning for me that occurred at that moment was that I too needed to guard against the impulse we all seem to have to judge and to become part of the withholding of food based on our notions and our perceptions. If we truly seek to end hunger in America all of those impulses have got to be repressed or suppressed or otherwise eliminated so that every product that can be offered to the people, everything that might have value or use to them, is offered to them.

The decision making about whether it can or should be used by them must be left entirely up to them, so that the person who bears the consequences of the decision is the person who gets to make the decision.