On Choice: The Cranberries and Pudding Story, Part 2

This is a continuation of the cranberries story we started a week ago.

I told the cranberry story as part of my presentation up at the Food Bank of Alaska as part of their agency conference.  I told the story as an example of why it’s kind of interesting and fun to get out of the way and let forces that we don’t control play a role in designing what happens.

At the end of my presentation, a young man came up, identified himself as the manager of a large pantry at a big multi-service agency up there in Anchorage.  He said, “Oh my goodness, I’ve never thought about these issues this way. You’ve completely changed my thinking about how a food pantry should run.  I am totally committed to changing my pantry from doing everything wrong to doing everything right.  I hope to get that done as quickly as possible, but it’ll take a little while to work through the politics of the organization because it would represent quite a change for them.”

He knew, though, that he could immediately make one of the interim changes that I had commended as a possibility.  While they continued giving out their standardized bags, he would come to the Food Bank, get a big selection of things that they did not include in their standardized bag, and put them out on what he was going to call the “Odds and Ends” table.  After people had been given their standardized bag of food, they would be invited to go over and pick out an item per family member.

I must not have given the impression of being sufficiently impressed at that point, because he persisted, saying that he would even be taking and offering out various types of pudding.  He explained that at some earlier point in his life he had been hospitalized with some ailment for an extended period of time – certainly weeks, if not months – and the only thing they had let him have to eat was pudding, to the point that the very thought of pudding was enough to make him run from the room screaming.  He pointed out to me that, you never know, it might be like those cranberries, there could be somebody that needs pudding.

The next morning, he did indeed go over to the Food Bank and load up bunches of stuff.  So when Susannah Morgan, the Executive Director of the Food Bank there, and I showed up at his pantry for a visit, we could see that he already had his new Odds and Ends table up and in operation.  And that, just by itself, created a stunning change in behavior.

On the one side of the room, people were lined up to get their standardized bag, and I swear it was almost like a black and white photo of The Great Depression.  People’s heads were down, their shoulders were slumped, they were shuffling forward as the line moved, they were not making eye contact, they weren’t talking.  When they did have to talk, they were just mumbling their answers in as few words as they could.

Then they were told they could go across the room – it was a fairly big room – and at the Odds and Ends table they would be able to pick out some items to go along with what was in the standardized bag.  It was as though, while they crossed the room, the music came up, the film was colorized, and over at the Odds and Ends table, people were laughing and talking and sharing recipes and comparing products and reading ingredients.  It was night and day, one side of the room to the other.  Solely from people being given choice as opposed to not.

So we observed that for a couple of minutes and then went up to the receptionist and she asked if she could help us.  Me being me, I said, “Yes, would you tell Tom that the Alaska pudding inspectors are here.”

She did a double-take and said “What?!”  We started laughing.  Susannah was looking at me like I’d lost my mind.

I said, “Oh, he’ll understand, it’ll work, it’ll be fun.  You can tell him, trust me.”  Which of course she had no reason at all to do, but she said OK, so she got up and went over and told him, and we were over there giggling.  He did the predicted double take, then he looked over and saw it was us, laughed and waved us in.

He said, “All right you guys, I’ll show you,” and took us over to the Odds and Ends table, where he showed that he had almost a little shrine of pudding that he had assembled with all different kinds of pudding cups and the dry pudding mixes, so that he had the complete collection of strawberry and chocolate and vanilla and tapioca and butterscotch and every flavor you can imagine.  So we congratulated him on passing his pudding inspection.

Then we turned.  He was standing there, and so were Susannah and I, and I believe two of his other staff, and here at the reception desk was an old woman whose mouth was kind of strange; it turned out that she had had all of her teeth extracted that morning and she was going to be given dentures.  She had a note from the dentist saying that for the time being she should try to get very soft things to eat, such as pudding.

Our little group just moved away into one of the far corners where everyone was just looking at one another in incredulity and saying, “My gosh, we have never had pudding in this food pantry, and we have never had a request for pudding in this food pantry, and within an hour or so of us having that, this happens!  How do you do that?”  And then somebody said, “Do it again!”  to which I replied, “I can’t, I can’t, it runs down the batteries.”  And they asked, “How does it happen?”

I don’t know.  All I know is that one of their other staff escorted the woman over to the pudding shrine, and said, “Here’s our pudding selection, and please feel free to take the ones you can use,” just all matter-of-fact as though that pudding was meant to be there for her.