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.
In 1995 there was an absolutely killer heat wave that moved into the Midwest. It actually came east from Chicago. While it was in Chicago, somewhere between 600 and 800 people died of heat related conditions or circumstances.
When the heat wave moved on into Michigan, the Public Health people declared a heat emergency, essentially a disaster declaration urging players of all sorts to take extraordinary steps to try to minimize the danger and damage that might occur. In particular they were trying to get people whose utilities had been cut off and/or who didn’t have air conditioning to go to shelters that were air conditioned.
There was tremendous concern about that because the law regarding utility shutoffs is that you can’t shut off people’s utilities during the winter, but you can during the spring and summer. So that’s when many people don’t have utilities and so would not have fans or air conditioners. The Public Health folks were especially concerned about senior citizens, many of whom would not avail themselves of shelter services. Many of them also lived in homes where you either physically couldn’t open the windows or you wouldn’t dare open the windows for fear of burglars or whatever. So there were people just sweltering in these little hot boxes of apartments and homes.
The Food Bank was asked to do what it could, which was to provide beverages in an effort to keep everyone hydrated. So we went through the Second Harvest (now Feeding America) National Office, and because there had been a disaster declaration we were able to access about 18 tractor-trailer loads of beverages of every sort. Bottled iced tea, bottled water, soda pop, sports beverages, fruit juices, pretty much everything you can imagine. For the duration of the heat emergency, we were dispensing that product at absolutely no charge to our agencies so that they could and ideally would hand out that product very freely to people who obviously very badly needed it.
I happened to glance out of my office window into the agency loading area, and I noticed that one of the large pantries from Grand Rapids had finished getting product and was preparing to leave. They still had a considerable amount of room in their vehicle, but absolutely no beverages of any kind in evidence. I went over to their director – the agency’s director himself was there picking up food – and asked in a mystified way, “No beverages?”
Without batting an eye, he said, “We give out powdered milk.”