This story comes to us from the early days of the Waste-Not Want-Not research that ultimately culminated in the publication of Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America.
Early on in the Waste Not Want Not research, the researchers identified a problem: the standardized food box list that most agencies were using. In their conversations with clients, they found that clients were being given a lot of products they could not use and would not use. In looking at what products were being given out, the researchers realized – it was clearly evident – why much of the product was not being used. A lot of the products looked responsible and nutritious and all of those sorts of things, but it was generally a lot of products that real people in the real world almost never use. A typical list would include powdered milk and dried beans and dried rice and dried noodles and a can of tuna fish. It was what we came to call the bomb shelter food, in that it is responsible, nutritious food that does store well and is fairly cheap, but it isn’t what anyone actually ever eats.
We realized that we needed to replace those lists, and at that early stage of our research we supposed that the logical solution was to replace those lists with a list that was more reflective of what clients actually wanted and would use. So we found a group of clients who were willing to come to the food bank to complete the task of producing a client-developed list of what should go in a standardized food box. They did come to the food bank, and they did labor away in our break room for several hours, and eventually, like a jury reporting its verdict, they came out and they presented their list. Upon review, we found that it overlapped probably 30% with the normal list.
I should mention that there has always been remarkable uniformity among the lists between food pantries around the country. They seem to gravitate to the same meal plans, giving a box of cereal and some powdered milk for people to have for breakfast, and a can of soup and a loaf of bread and some peanut butter and jelly for lunch, and things for making a casserole and a jello salad for supper. This seems to be common in standardized food lists in use across pretty much all of America. The clients’ list did include some of those products, but then it included a number of other things, so we thought that was good.
Purely as an afterthought we asked the clients, since they were already at the Food Bank anyway, if they would like to take a tour of the place just to see where some of the food that would come to them in pantries came from. Their response was, “Sure, whatever.”
We started our tour, and we were only 10 feet into it before different members of the group started exclaiming about the different things that were available, saying, “Oh my goodness! Oh, I would love to get that!” or, “Boy could I use this!” or, “Oh my gosh, it would be so wonderful if I could get this!”
I found myself looking at the list they had just developed, and most of the foods that they were exclaiming over and indicating they would love to be able to get weren’t on that list. I stopped them and said, “Wait a minute, let’s do a little thinking here. I’m hearing that you would love to get a whole lot of things that you haven’t told me on this list. What’s the deal with that?”
There were two general answers. The first was, “Oh, well, we made up the list of things we thought you would want us to want.” The second, “We had no idea what could be available and so it didn’t really occur to us to put these things down. We never supposed that anyone might make them available, but if they are available, absolutely we would love to get them.”
At that point we realized that there is no such thing as a good standardized list. No standardized list can take into consideration the availability of product or the differences between households and their abilities and needs.