On Choice: The Overflowing Storeroom

Changing long-set patterns of behavior and thought can be very difficult – as shown by this this John Arnold story from a visit to a Texas food pantry.

When we arrived at the pantry, I was introduced by the person from the Food Bank who was taking me around visiting agencies as this wonderful out of town expert on the subject of how food pantries should operate. It was a little embarrassing. But the pantry volunteers were just delighted that I had come because they were grappling with a seemingly insoluble problem and were just at their wits end, not knowing what to do. They were hoping that maybe I would be able to figure out a solution for them. I said, “Well, I’d certainly be willing to take a look at this situation, and be willing to contribute whatever I could in the way of a recommendation or solution.”

So they took me back into their food storage area, where they had their food up on the sort of screw-together metal shelving you could buy at K-Mart. They explained that their pantry gave out a standardized food bag, and despite their best efforts to get people to donate only what was on the list of what they put in their standardized bag, people continued to give them things that weren’t on the list. Those “extra” items had accumulated on their shelves and were now filling the storage area to the point that they were running out of room, and they just didn’t know what to do about that situation!

I tried to keep my face straight and not laugh, and since there were a number of volunteers standing around waiting for something to do, I tested one of the shelving units to see how heavy it was. I realized that it probably could be carried if you put one person on each corner, and so I said, “I think I’ve got a solution for you. Would you please take this corner, you take that corner, you take this corner and I’ll take a corner. And would somebody get the door please?”

I told them to lift with their knees, and we carried it out into the client waiting room, where we put it up against the wall. Then I said, “I need paper and a big marker, because I need to make a sign, and we also need some boxes and bags out here.”

The sign I made said, “If you can use any of this food, please take it.”

The clients in the waiting room were absolutely stunned. They came over and started collecting things with very evident joy. A number of them filled a bag or box and left. They didn’t wait around or go through the rigmarole of trying to get the standardized box. Within a relatively short period of time, 5 minutes maybe, the shelving unit was largely empty.

I said, “Ok, let’s get another one and bring it out. I think if you do that every time the shelving unit that’s out here gets pretty close to emptied out, that will be the solution to your problem.” I don’t know what the poor pantry staff did long term, because they appeared to be in total shock and disbelief at what was happening, that food that wasn’t on the list was being given out. That appeared to be a concept so foreign to them that I think it was just beyond their comprehension.