Following a Client “To See What Really Happens to the Food”

This is a story that was told to John Arnold by a food pantry director.  This pantry director had become convinced that client choice and the other Waste Not Want Not methods were the right way to go, and had the authority to force the implementation of those practices in the pantry that he ran, but he was not able to really convince some of his volunteers, who remained pretty openly skeptical about how this was all going to work.  Interestingly, their own skepticism led them to discover the trustworthiness of the clients they were so anxious about.

Just a few days into using the new system, the volunteers noticed a particular client who was radiating a certain amount of guilt in his body language and was clearly taking an unusually large amount of food. By the time the pantry director became aware of the situation, they were actually congratulating one another on having their suspicions confirmed that you really could not trust the kind of people who came to food pantries to get food.

The pantry director found their attitude and behavior to be inappropriate and upsetting, occurring as it was in a church; but he himself was a little shaken by the episode and allowed himself to be coaxed out the door with the most antagonistic volunteers so that they could get into a car and follow this particular client to see what happened – what really happened – when you let people take as much food as they want. They surreptitiously followed the client’s car until he pulled into a driveway.

The volunteers had had the presence of mind to quickly grab the client’s information sheet, and were a bit crestfallen to find that the address where the client had parked his car was the address that he had given them.  The client got out, popped open the trunk, took out several large bags of groceries, walked next door to a truly dilapidated house, and knocked on the torn screen door. After what seemed an eternity, an elderly woman in a house dress and on a walker opened the door, and he carried the groceries into her house.

What was he doing?  He was getting food for a shut in neighbor who pretty obviously had need of it.  Why didn’t he just tell the pantry that that was what he was doing?  Probably because very few, if any, pantries around the country that are not truly aligned with the Waste Not Want Not recommendations would ever let a client take extra food for some alleged shut-in neighbor.

Neither the pantry director nor the volunteers said anything; they just rode back to the pantry in silence. Nothing was ever said about the issue again.