The Fruit Cocktail and Rice Guy

Early in the process that ultimately led to the Waste-Not Want-Not project and the writing of Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America, John Arnold and his staff at Feeding America West Michigan began pondering what they could do differently or more efficiently to distribute enough food via charitable food assistance programs to meet the need for food assistance in their service area. And pretty soon a piece of the answer arrived with an agency representative in a story we’ll call “The Fruit Cocktail and Rice Guy.”

One day at the Food Bank, I happened to go out into the agency loading area, where an agency representative was expressing unhappy thoughts, possibly angry thoughts at one of our staff. The staff person appeared ready to respond in kind, so I edged in between them and shooed my person away.

I introduced myself to the agency person and asked if there was a problem. He explained that he had driven some distance to get to the Food Bank, but claimed “There isn’t a darn thing at the Food Bank my church’s pantry can use to feed people!” I was mystified by his assertion because I had recently checked our inventory and noted about twenty of America’s favorite foods were represented in the million pounds of product we had on hand.

When I asked him to help me understand a little better, he pulled a list out of his pocket. He explained that at his church, they wanted to make sure people ate what was good for them. They also wanted to be fair, so they gave every client exactly the same array of products. This was the list of those products. The problem was that we didn’t have any of those specific products.

The first thing on the list happened to be fruit cocktail. He pointed to the list and challenged me, “You don’t have any fruit cocktail, do you?” I had to admit that we probably didn’t have any fruit cocktail as such, but I pointed out that we did have: canned peaches, and canned pears, and canned plums. We had dessert cherries and pie cherries in cans, we had jars of applesauce, and we had a considerable quantity of fresh fruit of various sorts. We had the little square juice boxes, we had fruit roll ups, we had fruit pop tarts, and we had fruit gummy candy things that were fruit juice-based. We had a lot of Minute Maid refrigerated juices, we had Welch’s grape concentrate, we had Chiquita fruit juice popsicles, and we had Sara Lee fruit pies.

I knew that list just off the top of my head! I suspect we had even more than that. Well, he was totally unimpressed and harrumphed that it was fine that we had all of those products, but we still didn’t have fruit cocktail. At that point I was beginning to be a little frustrated myself, and was wondering how to get through to this person that this list should not carry such power.

When I noticed further on down the list that one of the things on it was rice, I told him that he would be able to get rice from us. He shook his head and said without batting an eye that he couldn’t take our rice, because our rice was in two pound bags and “at our church we give out one pound bags.”

Well, my first reaction was to think that he was kidding, and I may even have started laughing. Then I realized that he wasn’t laughing, I said, “You’re kidding, right?” He replied that he wasn’t. I was incredulous at that point, and asked, “If you don’t get rice here, where are you going to get rice?” He said that they would have to go to the store and buy it.

So I asked him, “What would a one pound bag of rice cost?” He thought for a moment and then said that it would probably be about forty-five cents. I informed him that for forty-five cents – because we were charging just a dime a pound for rice at that time – they could get four and a half pounds of rice from us. “Well, yeah,” he admitted, “but it’s in the wrong size bag.” At that point I needed a time out, so I asked him to just hang on there for a minute.

So I came back into the office, and I got some scissors and I got some twist ties, and I went back out. I got one of the little bags of rice, and I did a little demo, showing him how there was enough extra room in the bags, you could use a ruler or something from underneath, raise it up and divide the bag in two, then carefully cut it and twist tie both of the halves. So you could magically convert the two pound bag of rice into two one pound bags of rice!

But that was too much of a reach for him, and he left the Food Bank empty handed, having taken none of our food.