“Clients Don’t Want Fruits and Vegetables”

As food pantry organizers, volunteers, and staff members, one of the most important things we can do is to be open to new and better approaches to helping the people we serve. This story comes to us from John Arnold, 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.

One time the Waste Not Want Not researchers were calling on a pantry on the north side of Grand Rapids that they had heard was giving out totally inadequate amounts of food to people it served.  They went and met with the director, who upon hearing the concern that she wasn’t giving out more food affirmed that the reason that was the case was that she and her pantry simply couldn’t afford to give out larger quantities, that they could barely keep up with what they were doing as it is.

In the midst of all this, our researchers, looking at the food she had on her shelves, realized that the majority of it appeared to have been purchased at stores, wholesale or retail.  Everything in sight was canned, packaged, shelf-stable: canned fruits, and canned vegetables, canned this and canned that.  Shelf-stable but also very expensive and not making use of the Food Bank.  In particular, not making use of the quantities of fresh fruits and vegetables that we were dispensing to agencies for a handling fee of only three cents per pound.  So they suggested that she try a strategy which ultimately ended up being one of the key practices recommended by their research in Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America: to stretch the pantry’s money and simultaneously increase the amount of food being given out by making use of the fresh fruits and vegetables available from the Food Bank.

She shook her head no, she couldn’t, and affirmed that her clients ‘simply didn’t know how to cook or how to make use of fresh fruits and vegetables, that they only know how to open cans, and eat whatever is in them.  That, you know, people around here just don’t know how eat that other stuff.’

Well, among the neighbors of that pantry are me and my family, and just up the street from us is Grand Rapids’ most successful fruit and vegetable market.  I don’t know, maybe all the people that shop there are from out of town somewhere, but I swear that I see a lot of people on foot walking to and from it in this neighborhood where supposedly no one knows how to cook or how to make use of those things.

The Waste Not Want Not staff, being diplomats as well as scholars, didn’t want to confront her on the absurdity of what she’d just said, so they agreed that indeed if she took some of the really unusual things that we occasionally get at the Food Bank they might not be readily taken and used by clients, but if she took the most common and most popular sorts of things, such as potatoes, carrots, and onions, and apples, bananas, and oranges, and put those out, that for every bunch of those that a client took instead of a far more expensive can of fruit or vegetables it would represent more food for the clients and less expense for the pantry.

“Oh no!” the pantry director said, “If I did that, I’d never get anything else done.  I’d have to restock the fruits and vegetables twenty times a day!” … with the products that she had sixty seconds earlier affirmed that no one in this neighborhood could possibly want.  What she was really saying was, “I’m too busy and this is the way we’ve always done it, and I don’t want to change.”