Why don’t clients protest?

In 1995, six months into the formal Waste Not Want Not research, the two lead researchers came to John to deliver some rather disquieting news: they had been talking with many clients – hundreds – about the experience of accessing food assistance from food pantries, and they had not found a single client who was able to describe their food pantry experience in positive terms. John was appalled, so he set out to see if he could find one by inviting a group of clients to discuss their experiences in seeking and receiving food aid from pantries.

In the conversation of this group of African-American women, it had come up that they generally did feel disrespected and distrusted in the intake process or eligibility screening they had gone through. They were frustrated about being able to get food only once a month and they were mystified that often the amount of food they needed was never even asked about. It was as though that issue didn’t even matter. And then they were handed an arbitrary selection of food, again totally without regard to their realities or needs or abilities. The net result was that they were very inadequately provided with help in a very humiliating, frustrating way.

Eventually I got too perplexed: How could people continue coming in and going through the process and getting food and thanking the pantry and leaving – and never indicate to the pantry that the system wasn’t working well? It was conceivable that a pantry could be genuinely clueless, that the system they were using wasn’t working well from the client’s perspective.

So I challenged to this group of women, “Have you ever expressed your concern or dismay or displeasure to the pantry? Have you ever told them? Because if you haven’t told them that the system they’re using is a bad one in need of correction, they’re just going to go on using it forever.”

At that point, they all kind of looked at one another in an “Ok, who wants to tell him” sort of way. Finally one of them spoke up: “White boy, I don’t think you understand how the system works. When you go up to the plantation house and they’re giving out food or clothes or something like that, you don’t get uppity in their face about ‘Hey, I don’t like this color,’ or ‘I don’t want this one,’ you just mumble your thanks and be glad you got what you got, because if you go off on them, chances are they’ll snatch that whatever it was back and you’ll never get anymore again. And so you do put down your head, and you mumble your thanks, and you go out the door, and you do the best you can with what you got.”

And at that point I realized that the food bank – and at that point in food banking’s history, our Food Bank – had to become the advocate for America’s hungry people. We had to challenge America’s charity food system on behalf of clients who clearly were in no position to take up that effort on their own because of how vulnerable they were.

Learn more: Read the Waste-Not Want-Not intake recommendations here.