The 90 Second Miracle, or: The difference not buying food makes

Today’s story of “The 90 Second Miracle” comes to us from John Arnold, then the executive director of Feeding America West Michigan. It illustrates the impact that a food pantry switching to use donated food (via the food banking system) rather than relying on retail purchasing can have.

One time I presented on the Waste-Not Want-Not recommendations at a conference at a Second Harvest national conference in Chicago.  At the end of my presentation, a woman came up and identified herself as the director of – I believe she said – the largest food pantry in New York City.

She was shaking her head in incredulity and said, “Oh my goodness, I have never thought of these issues in the way you’ve described them.  My pantry has been doing everything wrong, and I am committed to switching it completely over to the methods that you recommend.”

“But,” she said, “you’re going to have to help me out a little bit. My church already supports our pantry very generously; I just don’t think I can go back and get a lot more money from them… and I’m concerned that if instead of only letting people get food once a month, and making them prove themselves worthy and then giving them a three day box…”

I had described that three day box in my presentation as “bomb shelter food,” which is the dried beans and powdered milk sorts of food products that look responsible but nobody ever actually eats.  If she switched from that to letting people pretty much come in whenever they felt the need, and just on expressing need be permitted to take whatever amount of food they wanted, she was concerned that she would need a whole lot  more food, and that acquiring that much more food would require a lot more money.

So her question to me was, “How on earth can pantries afford to operate this way?  What kind of fundraising do they do?”  Well it was interesting – no one had ever asked me that question before, it had never come up as an issue, and so it caught me off guard.

While I was trying to buy time to come up with a reasonable answer, I asked, “How big is your food budget, just to give me some sense of the scale of fundraising we were talking about.”  Was it a little off-Broadway thing, or was it Carnegie Hall level stuff that we needed to think about?

She said that her food budget was $42,000 a year – I believe that was in the late 1990s – and that was a huge food budget for a food pantry.

I was shocked, and I gasped.  “You spend $42,000 a year at the Food Bank there in New York?”

She looked a little taken aback, and said, “Well, no.”

At that point I felt like a shark in the ocean, I had just smelled a little trace of blood, so I zeroed in and I asked, “How much do you spend at the Food Bank?”

She did a little mental calculating and answered, “Well, about $4000 a year.”

So I said, “What do you do with the other $38,000?”

“Well, I go to the store and buy things we need that the Food Bank doesn’t have.”

And I asked, “What things would that be?”

“Well,” she said, “the powdered milk and the dried beans,” and her list kind of faded out and she said “Oh dear, I shouldn’t buy that, should I?”

I laughed and said, “No, you shouldn’t.”

She said, “If I spent all $42000 at the Food Bank, how much food would that be?”

And I laughed at that point because in New York they have a state purchase program and government commodities, all of which goes out to agencies free, so they’re really only paying for the donated products the food banks have and because all the other stuff is free, agencies won’t pay much for the other, so most New York food banks don’t charge very much. So I estimated that it could come out to as much as a couple of million pounds a year.

Then she was truly taken aback and said, “Oh my goodness, we couldn’t possibly need anywhere near that much.”

So I said “Ok, I think I’ve got a deal for you.  Why don’t you plan on spending about $12,000 a year at the Food Bank, about a $1,000 a month.  I think that ought to just about double your food supply and that ought to cover any and all possible increases in the amount of food that you distribute.”

And she nodded and said, “Ok.”  And then she put her hands on her hips and sort of accused me, “Well, then what am I supposed to do with that other $30,000?”

That is truly part of the miracle of the whole Waste Not Want Not approach, that we had taken her, in one approximately 90 second conversation from having absolutely no hope of being able to meet the need, into being able to meet the need generously, with money left over.