The Importance of Variety: A Food Bank With No Food

This story comes to us from John Arnold, then Executive Director of Feeding America West Michigan.

You may remember from our story about The Fruit Cocktail and Rice Guy that the impetus for pursuing the Waste Not Want Not research was our agencies’ propensity to stick very closely to a very specific shopping list – while at the same time we were turning away millions of pounds of product each month.  Today we’ll be showing that that phenomenon was not restricted to our service area as we begin sharing stories relevant to the finding that we can only end hunger if we provide the entire variety of donated foods made available to the charity sector.

On the last morning of the 2001 National Conference in Atlanta, I sat down to breakfast at a table where I didn’t recognize anyone.  After I sat down, I realized that the person to my left was sobbing.  At a pause in her sobs, as gently as I could I said that while it was clearly none of my business, she was obviously pretty upset about something, and was there anything that I or anyone could maybe do to help?

She managed to collect herself enough to semi-introduce herself as a relatively new director of a food bank.   This was her first conference, and unfortunately it was turning out it was probably going to be her last conference because it was pretty certain that when she went back to her food bank it would be to shut it down because they were failing financially and otherwise because they simply had no food and she didn’t know what to do about it.

I’m afraid I may even have chuckled a little as I said, “Well I think you just did what you need to do.  You just told somebody, and by happiest of coincidences, you just told somebody who knows everybody, more or less.  Certainly everybody who has a lot of food.  There is simply no way on earth that your food bank is going to fail for lack of food.  I can personally guarantee you of that, even if I have to fill it myself; I can do so, and I will.”

I told her that I would arrange that my food bank would send its first load of food essentially immediately and that we would send as many more as were needed.  I would make the rounds, or some calls, and I would get as many other food banks sharing product with them for as long as it would take to fill them up and keep them full for as long as it took for them to get their feet under themselves.

She was obviously very pleased and surprised, then provided me with contact information for her operations manager who was running the store while she was gone, so that we could coordinate with him.  I got to a phone and I called our food bank, explained the situation, told them that I wanted a load of the best product that we had put together for that other food bank.  I flew back to Grand Rapids right after breakfast, and when I got to the Food Bank we checked over the list – and it was a very nice load – and we faxed it off to the other food bank, saying that all we needed was their go-ahead and our broker would be able to get it to them first thing the next morning.

A few minutes later the phone rang; it was their operations manager, and he was very appreciative but rather surprised that we were offering them a whole trailer load of food.  “What’s brought this on?” he asked.  I explained that I had met his director that morning, and that she had explained that they were in danger of going under for lack of food, and that we were going to correct that situation.  This was only the first of many loads from us and other food banks that would be coming their way in the next few days.

You could almost see him holding up his hands, saying “Whoa, whoa, hold on.”  He said that he didn’t even have room for this load let alone any others, that his warehouse was packed floor to ceiling.  At that point I was the one to be taken aback.  So I said, “What happened? I just talked with your director this morning and she said you didn’t have any food.”

“Oh,” he said, “we’ve got food coming out our ears, we just don’t have the food our agencies want.”