This vignette comes to us from John Arnold and the Waste Not Want Not research that Feeding America West Michigan did with Michigan State University Extension in the 1990s. That many different aspects of peoples’ lives can shape what foods will be most beneficial for them is a lesson that many nutrition-focused food pantries urgently need to learn today.
Possibly the most interesting and unanticipated occurrence during the Waste Not Want Not Project began innocently enough without even involving us. A caseworker for the Department of Public Health was doing home visits with households that received WIC assistance. At a household that she called on, she found the children home alone with the five year old at the stove with a burner turned on and a small pile of dried beans in the dry pan which she was rolling back and forth with a spoon in hopes of making them somehow edible because she and the two year old that she was caring for were hungry and there was nothing else in the house for them to eat. The children had no idea who their father even was, and they weren’t sure where their mother was or how long she had been gone or when she might return. Apparently she did return soon enough afterwards that the children were not removed by Protective Services, but the WIC caseworker did promptly come to the Food Bank and, in partnership with one of our agencies, drew a large amount of food which she delivered back to that household.
Then or shortly thereafter, the WIC caseworker determined that the household’s primary source of supplemental food was a food pantry that only would give them a once a month standardized box of products like dried beans. She was aware of the Waste Not Want Not Project which was then in progress, and spoke with our researchers about the situation. Together they decided that this might be a teachable moment for that food pantry, showing them that their method of giving out food wasn’t meeting this family’s need and potentially other families’ needs.
A meeting was arranged of the WIC caseworker, our Waste Not Want Not staff and that pantry. I don’t know what happened with whatever conversation they may have had about the frequency of help or even necessarily the quantity of help. The part that was reported back to me was the food pantry’s expression of dismay and disbelief at the idea that they should provide families like this one with products that small children could simply open and eat on their own without doing any cooking or preparation.
The pantry affirmed that it was “pro-family” and that “those parents had a responsibility to be there and to be cooking meals for those children.” The pantry asserted that it didn’t want to have any part in “enabling those parents to shirk their responsibilities.” At which point, I’m not sure whether it was the WIC caseworker or the Waste Not Want Not staff, but one or the other of them apparently just roared at the agency, “You do not put a child on the battlefield! If you’ve got some issue with some adult, you work it out with that adult, but you never let a child go hungry as a pawn in that kind of struggle!”
That backed the pantry up a bit; I don’t think they were expecting that sort of response. So, as we know from the rest of our Waste Not Want Not research, nutrition is often the last refuge of scoundrels. Indeed that was the next issue they raised, that “we have a responsibility to make sure that the families we serve eat nutritious food.” The idea that they might give out something like potato chips or granola bars or something was just…they just weren’t going to do it because nutrition is “so important,” at which point – I believe it was one of our Waste Not Want Not researchers working for Michigan State University – one of the three registered dieticians present expressed for the three of them, slamming her hand on the table and yelling at the agency, “To hell with nutrition!”
Needless to say, the exchange of views was less than cordial and I don’t believe that the pantry changed the way that it operated. But it did give us a Kodak moment that became a rallying cry for those of us who understand that the charitable food distribution system has no business censoring food on the basis of nutrition when our the people we serve have such diverse individual situations and needs, and when so many people are getting so much less help from our system than they ideally should be.