Cornmeal in the parking lot

This story about the importance of individual choice (and the silliness of standardized food bags/boxes) comes to us from the late John Arnold, who at the time was the Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank.

This story involves a pantry in the greater Grand Rapids, Michigan area that grappled with a quandary that I only learned about when they discovered a solution and came into the Food Bank on one of their normal visits.

This pantry had received lots of leftover bags of cornmeal from the community action agency that handled most of the mass distribution of USDA commodities in the area.  Of course the leftovers were available because very few people had wanted any cornmeal in the first place, but the pantry immediately started giving every one of their clients a bag of cornmeal in their standardized food bag.

Unsurprisingly, they started to find bags of cornmeal out in the parking lot.  Clients would come to the pantry, be given a standardized bag, and would get outside and realize there was this silly bag of cornmeal in there and they would abandon it.

So the pantry convened a committee to try to figure out what to do.  They decided that the clients were discovering the cornmeal too early.  If the pantry hid it in the very bottom of the bag or box of food the client was given, presumably the client would get it all the way home, would only discover it then, and would say, “Ho ho, this pantry has pulled a fast one on me, they have given me cornmeal.  I guess I’ll have to eat it.” 

But hiding the cornmeal in the bottom of the bags only made the problem worse, because now the clients weren’t abandoning the cornmeal in the pantry’s parking lot.  They were walking several blocks on their way home and then they were sitting down a curb to rest for a few minutes, and as they were sitting there they would go through their bag just to see what sorts of things they had been given.  They would discover the cornmeal, which was – I don’t know if it was a three or a five pound bag – essentially a sand bag or a boat anchor, and abandon it on a curb or in somebody’s bushes.  At this point the church started getting complaints from the neighborhood.

So they reconvened their committee and decided that the problem was the clients didn’t know how to use cornmeal.  The solution could be as easy as providing the clients with recipes to use it!  So they made up a sheet of recipes and rubber banded it to the cornmeal, and still hid it in the bottom of the bags.  So then the complaints from the neighborhood were that both the cornmeal and the recipe sheets were being abandoned on the curbs and in the bushes.

Again they reconvened the committee and came up with a solution that actually worked: They put out the cornmeal out on a little display with a sign above it that said, “If you would like to take some of this, feel free.”  And that solution – only giving the cornmeal to the people who actually wanted it – solved the problem.